Enviro groups threaten to sue over coal ash water permit for Dominion plant

On behalf of Potomac Riverkeeper Network, the Southern Environmental Law Center said Feb. 1 that it has notified Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that it will appeal in Virginia circuit court the permit allowing Dominion Virginia Power to legally pollute Quantico Creek and the Potomac River with more than 150 million gallons of coal ash wastewater from the Possum Point Power Station.

The notice of appeal came in response to the recent approval of a permit by the State Water Control Board. The state sanctioned Dominion Virginia Power, a unit of Dominion Resources (NYSE: D), to dump almost 3 million gallons per day of coal ash wastewater laden with harmful elements at levels exceeding human and environmental health standards, the center said. The permit allows Dominion to pollute Quantico Creek and Potomac River with arsenic, it added, at levels up to three times higher the state’s own safety threshold to protect aquatic life and 30 times higher than comparable water permits in neighboring North Carolina.

The conservation groups are challenging the failure of the permit to require Dominion to abide by the Clean Water Act and to use readily available water treatment technologies that remove most of the toxic metals from the wastewater before it is released into a waterway used by many for fishing, boating, and birdwatching. 

“The Commonwealth of Virginia has given Dominion a free pass to dump hundreds of millions of contaminated wastewater from its coal ash ponds and threaten the health of our Nation’s River and those who rely upon it. We have no choice but to appeal this very bad decision,” said Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks.

Last April, Dominion announced its plan to deal with its leaking coal ash dumps throughout the state, which includes draining the highly-polluted wastewater into nearby rivers and then just covering up the remaining toxic ash without the necessary safeguards to prevent leaking of contaminants into nearby groundwater and surface waters, the center said. As the first state permit of its kind, a bad precedent could be set for how the state will deal with the problem of contaminated coal ash wastewater that is currently stored in unlined, leaking pits next to rivers throughout the state, it added. 

“When Duke Energy illegally polluted the Dan River in North Carolina and Virginia with over 25 million gallons of contaminated coal ash slurry, it faced criminal charges and millions in fines. Two years after that catastrophe Dominion wants to intentionally dump six times the amount of coal ash wastewater into the Potomac River, and our state environmental agency gave it a license to do so,” said Greg Buppert, Senior Attorney at Southern Environmental Law Center.

The center on Feb. 1 separately released a statement about a recent report showing that groundwater contamination has dramatically declined along the Catawba-Wateree River after coal ash removal by South Carolina Electric and Gas. Under a settlement negotiated by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Catawba Riverkeeper, SCE&G agreed to remove the coal ash from its Wateree facility on the banks of the Catawba-Wateree River near Columbia, South Carolina, upstream of the Congaree National Park.  The coal ash is being moved to a lined landfill away from the river where it is stored dry.

In its latest report, SCE&G announced that it has now removed over 876,000 tons of coal ash from the site, or about one-third of the coal ash. At the same time, groundwater contamination at the site has plummeted. In one monitoring well, arsenic had contaminated the groundwater at 432 ppb, or 43 times the legal limit. In the latest report, arsenic contamination has dropped to 2.9 ppb, or a 99% decrease. In another monitoring well, arsenic was over 1000 ppb, ranging as high as 5000 ppb. In the latest report, arsenic had dropped to 58.6 ppb, or at least a 95% reduction. Arsenic contamination has been the principal groundwater concern at the Wateree site. Other pollutants, including lead, cadmium, and sulfate, are also reported at lower levels.

“These results confirm that when you remove the polluting coal ash, you also eliminate pollution of groundwater,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the center. “Duke Energy and North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality must wake up to this reality, learn from South Carolina, and move all of Duke Energy’s polluting coal ash from unlined waterfront pits to safe dry lined storage.  Otherwise, North Carolina’s groundwater will be polluted for years to come.”

SCE&G has committed to remove all its coal ash from unlined waterfront storage to dry, lined storage away from waterways. In South Carolina, all the utilities are moving all their coal ash from unlined waterfront pits to dry storage away from rivers and lakes and separated from the groundwater by synthetic liners.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.