Press Release | June 24, 2016

Federal Coal Ash Trial Concludes

Federal coal ash case ends; judge to rule later
SELC, Sierra Club sought to hold Dominion responsible for river pollution

Richmond, VA – The first federal trial focusing on a utility’s toxic coal ash leaks as a violation of the Clean Water Act ended Friday after four days of testimony from experts who explained how arsenic-tainted groundwater travels from ash pits into the Elizabeth River and nearby waters, and what must be done to stop the pollution.

The engineers, scientists and other experts testifying on behalf of the Sierra Club, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Judge John A. Gibney Jr., that to “a reasonable scientific certainty,” the coal ash stored at Dominion’s now-closed Chesapeake Energy Center is the source of high arsenic concentrations found in the bottom waters of the river and creek near the site. The scientists testified that meant the site was discharging arsenic through groundwater into the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River and adjacent waters.

The experts testified that:

  • Coal ash containing arsenic is buried as deep as six feet below sea level, is sitting in ground water, and is perpetually saturated.
  • Arsenic-tainted groundwater flows from the site and into the river and creek, where water from river bottom samples revealed “extremely high” arsenic concentrations. The concentrations were highest near the plant and lower in samples taken farther from the bank.
  • Dominion’s plan to let “nature take its course” and dilute the arsenic through a process called “natural attenuation” is not working, and will never work at that site. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality approved that plan.
  • Dominion’s plant-closure proposal that involves placing a cover and dirt over the coal ash landfill and ponds will not stop the arsenic pollution. The site contains 3 million tons of coal ash, including 150 tons of arsenic, and will continue leaking for decades.
  • The only way to stop the pollution is a full excavation of the site, as utilities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia are doing.

The experts testified in a case that sought to prove these ongoing groundwater leaks of arsenic and other toxins into the river violate the federal Clean Water Act. Dominion has denied any toxins are leaving the site. Despite the testimony from the scientists, hydrologists and environmental engineers, Dominion said the utility is not the source of the arsenic in the bottom water samples taken next to the plant.

The utility also claimed that even if arsenic-laden groundwater is leaving the plant and entering the river, that does not violate the Clean Water Act.

At the trial’s conclusion, Judge Gibney asked attorneys for both sides to summarize their cases in briefs by the end of July, and that he would rule later. He did not indicate when that would be.