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Critics counter coal ash assessment

Source: 
The Daily Progress

RICHMOND - An environmental group, a state lawmaker and companies looking to help Dominion Energy clean up millions of tons of coal ash sitting in unlined pits at four Virginia sites say they've found major flaws in the report on contamination at the ash ponds and options for closing them that the utility released earlier this month.

Among the biggest problems with the nearly 900 page assessment, Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, and the Southern Environmental Law Center contend, is that it leaves out about 2.1 million tons of ash at the company's now closed Chesapeake Energy Center. Following a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club and argued by attorneys from the law center, a federal judge determined earlier this year that the Chesapeake ash ponds are leaking arsenic into the Elizabeth River.

"I had expected them to do a full assessment of the Chesapeake site," said Surovell, who added that he plans to introduce several pieces of legislation dealing with coal ash in the coming session. "It's the most vulnerable of the four."

The report, prepared for Dominion by global infrastructure and engineering firm AECOM, was mandated by legislation successfully pushed by Surovell and Sen. Amanda F. Chase, R-Chesterfield, last General Assembly session.

It was prompted by mounting calls from state and local elected officials and environmental groups, as well as people who live next to the ash ponds, to slow down Dominion's plans to cover the unlined pits with a liner and layer of turf, which they worried could allow them to leak a host of heavy metals, including arsenic, into waterways for decades to come.

New federal regulations requiring the closure of the ponds came in 2015 after catastrophic failures of ash impoundments in Tennessee and North Carolina.

In a letter this month to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Southern Environmental Law Center urged the agency to force Dominion to include coal ash lagoons at Chesapeake in the assessment.

Dominion used three separate settling ponds on the small peninsula until the 1980s, said Nate Benforado, an attorney with the SELC. Later, the company built another ash landfill on top of a portion known as the historic pond.

"This is some of the most vulnerable stuff thata judge has already said is leaking arsenic into the river," Benforado said. "We can't pretend these 2.1 million tons don't exist. ... We really feel this is a glaring omission."

Surovell and Chase's bill required assessments for "coal combustion residuals surface impoundments."

"Without a doubt, the historic pond constitutes a 'coal combustion residuals surface impoundment,'" the letter argues. "By ignoring the historic pond, the 2.1 million tons of coal ash will serve as a perpetual source of arsenic flowing into the surrounding rivers."

Whether the Virginia DEQ feels the same way is unclear. The agency has faced criticism for failing to hold Dominion to higher standards as the utility rushed to close its ash ponds last year in response to the new federal regulations.

"Twice, we have urged DEQ to make clear to Dominion that the [federal coal combustion residuals rule] does apply to the unlined historic pond, apparently to no effect," the SELC wrote.

DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said the agency had no comment on the SELC letter. Asked whether the historic pond should qualify as a surface impoundment, Hayden said, "Sorry, DEQ is not making any comment."

Dominion spokesman Robert Richardson said Surovell and Chase's bill "was clear in its direction to study coal ash ponds regulated under the federal rule and does not include the previously closed area under the landfill."

Dominion's report was also faulted for what critics said were overstated costs and timeframes to excavate ash away from waterways and deposit it in lined landfills and dismissal of potential methods to recycle the ash for use in concrete or other products.

Tests from environmental groups show Dominion's Chesterfield and Bremo Bluff ash ponds are also leaking potentially toxic heavy metals into the James River and Dominion has paid for public water hookups for some residents who live near its Possum Point Power Station in Dumfries.

Dominion faces a lawsuit there from several residents who claim metals from the ash ponds wound up their drinking water wells.

In a Dec. 13 letter to Dominion, the Belden Brick Company said" it had demonstrated that it can make high-quality bricks and pavers from coal ash" at the Possum Point plant.

"Building a BEP brick manufacturing facility at Possum Point or another Dominion site would help Dominion empty its ash ponds and impoundments in less time and at lower cost than trucking ash to a landfill or capping the ash in place," the company wrote, adding that the AECOM assessment included "a number of critical errors or misconceptions."

Among those, according to Belden: The report failed to acknowledge revenue for Dominion from marketable bricks and pavers that would be produced in its cost-benefit analysis, which Belden estimates at $1 to $5 per ton of fly ash.

The company also faults the report for what it says is inaccurate information on the markets the company would serve, how it would transport bricks or pavers and industry acceptance of products made from recycled ash.

"It's a valid recycling technology and we have a meeting next month," said Richardson, the Dominion spokesman, in response to Belden's letter. "We will meet with anyone who can provide valid recycling solutions with proven technologies. We want to avoid projects that would put Dominion at a risk for meeting compliance dead lines or be dependent on a market not guaranteed to exist."

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