The Virginia General Assembly is considering legislation to deal with an estimated 25 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash at four locations, including one at the Chesterfield Power Station.
The plant is a major contributor to Dominion’s power grid, and the county’s tax base.
Dominion’s Chesterfield Power Station is not yet a dinosaur, more like an endangered species, with a very big footprint. It straddles 800 acres along the James River and produces enough electricity for 410,00 homes, and is Chesterfield’s biggest taxpayer.
It was built during World War II, when coal was king. Standing next to boiler Number Six is operations manager Jason Williams who talked about just how much coal is still consumed here. “The entire station will burn a full hundred-car train load of coal in one day at full load.”
Air pollution became a problem and the utility says it spent about $1 billion dollars to clean it up. At a visit to the site, the chimney at Unit Number 6 was billowing a white plume. Dominion says it’s 99 percent steam.
The problem now is nearly 15 million tons of coal ash, trucked to a landfill within site of the James River, and it could impact the plant’s future.
Nate Benforado is a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center or SELC. “Coal ash is dangerous stuff. It contains lots of heavy metals and other toxic pollutants, things like arsenic and hexavalent chromium. At Chesterfield we are even seeing radium, which is a radioactive element more recently associated with nuclear waste.”
Dominion says it spent millions of dollars draining the storage ponds, drying the ash and storing in in landfills on the site, in anticipation of the EPA’s Coal Combustion Residual Rule that went into effect in 2015 and mandated their clean up. And it is just the beginning.
But environmentalists like Benforado, say it is not enough. “We’ve been working with the James River Association at the Chesterfield site for a while now and have been sharing the results of our sampling with DEQ. We think the evidence is very clear. We have approached it in a number of different ways and used a number of different methodologies, but the ashes are leaking pollution into public lands and public waters. This is a recreational area.”
Just around the bend is Henricus Historical Park. Charles Grant is its Executive Director. “Well, I think naturally all of us are concerned about coal ash and what’s in the ground and perhaps what’s in the water and what could be blowing in the wind.”
The SELC has brought in scientists and outside experts to assess the coal ash pollution. The group is concerned about toxins, like arsenic, hexavalent chromium and cadmium. “Those are defined by law under the Clean Water Act as toxic pollutants. If you look at the definition that means these things can cause cancer, death, disease, abnormalities, genetic mutations. These are not the things we want anywhere near our rivers.” SELC and other environmental groups want Dominion to excavate the waste so it can’t pollute groundwater.
But Dominion wants to cap it, not move it, and there are others who agree, like Chesterfield Board Chairman Dorothy Jaeckle. “Well, we feel it would be worse of an impact to remove it, because it would open it and it would all be on the roads and transported. And I think there are enough measures in place to make sure when it’s capped, it’s safely capped.” Dominion Spokesman Rob Richardson says they prefer the cap, but, “Different people and different minds can debate how to manage coal ash.” He says about 30% can be recycled into cement and drywall, but the rest is a lingering problem.
A report prepared for the General Assembly estimates the cost of capping it and sealing it in place just at the Chesterfield plant, up to $1.1 billion. Moving it could cost more than $4 billion.
Legislation affecting all sites is being debated this week. “What you can’t debate is Dominion Energy’s commitment to the environment and it goes all the way to the top of this company.” (Fishburn) “And you prepared to spend what it takes?”
“We are.” And consumers would likely pay.
The General Assembly considered legislation this session to let Dominion recover some, if not all of the cost of coal ash cleanup. Democratic State Senator Lionell Spruill of Chesapeake didn’t like the idea. “This fly ash wasn’t created by the customer. Why do you want the customer to pay for something they did.”
And Republican Senator Amanda Chase of Chesterfield agrees customers shouldn’t have to pay, but says they’re part of the problem. “We created the coal ash. Anybody that turned on a light switch.” But she’s eager to find a solution. “I just want to see it all removed. I want it out of my floodplain. I want it away from the River.”
Both are members of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which settled on a bill that extends a moratorium on coal ash pond closures. It does allow Dominion to apply for permits to store residual ash on site. It also directs Dominion to put out for bids proposals for recycling ash.
Other measures like cost recovery, moving and capping, and mandatory testing of water quality will have to wait for next year. And more study.