2018-01-10 / Featured / Front Page

Sen. Chase: Coal ash should be excavated

Bill would force Dominion to dig up coal ash ponds

ASH DANIEL ASH DANIEL State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, has introduced legislation that would require Dominion Energy to remove more than 25 million tons of coal ash from unlined storage ponds at its Virginia power stations.

Chase submitted the bill late last week, just before the 5 p.m. Friday filing deadline for the 2018 General Assembly session, which begins Jan. 10. Her bill specifies that any coal ash stored in an unlined pond that is located within a half-mile of a floodplain or river must be excavated and disposed of by another means.

“I just can’t in good conscience leave coal ash in the ground,” Chase said during an interview last week. “When it comes to people’s lives, we need to err on the side of caution.”

Coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity, has been found to contain heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and chromium.

Environmental groups contend that removing the ash from unlined ponds and either recycling it or storing it in lined landfills is the only way to ensure those toxic substances can’t leak out and pollute bodies of water adjacent to Dominion’s Virginia power stations. “The ponds at the Chesterfield site are exceptionally vulnerable to groundwater contamination,” said Glen Besa, a county resident who serves as political chair for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. “Dominion must dig up coal ash and move it away from where it has already been poisoning people’s wells and local streams and rivers.”

Dominion’s preference is to cap the dry ash in place by covering it with an impermeable synthetic liner and a layer of soil – a process the company says would allow it to most quickly and inexpensively satisfy the Environmental Protection Agency’s pond closure mandate.

Dominion officials claim that excavating the ash and transporting it off-site for either recycling or storage in a lined landfill would be cost-prohibitive and result in higher monthly bills for their 2.2 million Virginia customers.

Chase and fellow Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, co-sponsored legislation during the 2017 General Assembly session that required Dominion to conduct an independent assessment of the condition of its Virginia coal ash ponds and prepare cost estimates for long-term management of the controversial material.

Dominion hired an international engineering firm, AECOM, to conduct the assessment. AECOM presented its findings in an 846-page report to the State Water Commission last month.

According to the report, Dominion’s two Chesterfield coal ash ponds can be capped in place within three to five years at a cost ranging from $246 million to $1.1 billion.

By comparison, the report says excavating the estimated 13 million tons of ash and transporting it to an off-site landfill by truck would take 29 years and cost $2.68 billion, and removing the ash and transporting it by rail would take 24 years and cost $4.6 billion.

Removing the ash and recycling it for use in concrete and other construction materials would take from 21 to 53 years and cost between $1.49 billion and $4.25 billion, the report concludes.

Chesterfield has by far the largest stockpile of coal ash among the four Virginia power stations in the AECOM assessment, which also included Bremo Bluff in Fluvanna County, Possum Point in Prince William County and the now-closed Chesapeake Energy Center in Hampton Roads.

Following release of the AECOM report, officials with the Southern Environmental Law Center suggested it “drastically overstates” the time and cost associated with removing coal ash from unlined storage ponds.

SELC and other environmental groups pointed to operations under way in other southeastern states, such as North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, where power companies are currently excavating an estimated 90 million tons of coal ash from unlined ponds.

Some of that ash is being transported by rail from Duke Energy power stations in North Carolina to a lined landfill in Amelia County.

Nate Benforado, an attorney with SELC, said the report is “skewed toward justifying Dominion’s insistence on capping these leaking coal ash pits in place, rather than taking a realistic look at alternative closure methods.”

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network and SELC jointly issued a report in November that suggests recycling Dominion coal ash for use in concrete mix is “commercially viable” and could save Virginia taxpayers billions of dollars on public infrastructure projects. The report, titled “Beneficial Reuse of Coal Ash from Dominion Energy Coal Ash Sites: A Feasibility Assessment,” was prepared by Dr. Kevin H. Gardner and Scott Greenwood from the University of New Hampshire.

“This report is truly groundbreaking – it demonstrates that the coal ash produced from Dominion’s coal-fired power plants can in fact be recycled to be beneficially used as a vital ingredient in concrete to improve highways and bridges throughout Virginia and the nation,” said Jeff Kelble, president of Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

Chase endorses recycling coal ash, but her bill doesn’t specify how Dominion must dispose of the material once it is excavated.

While she called the AECOM report “very thorough,” she still has unanswered questions about the long-term health risks associated with leaving coal ash in unlined ponds.

“I’m not just looking at it from a cost standpoint – we have to think about public safety,” she said. “There’s a lot we still don’t know. How many times has an expert said one thing and it turns out to be something different? I don’t want to take the risk and find out they’re wrong.”

Chase noted that Surovell also has introduced legislation regarding the management of Dominion’s coal ash. It’s possible their bills could be merged, she said, or she could withdraw hers and sign on to Surovell’s bill as a co-sponsor. Asked if she expects these more far-reaching measures to enjoy the same bipartisan support as their 2017 bill did, Chase seemed uncertain.

Republicans currently hold a 21-19 majority in the state Senate – meaning that if a coal ash bill makes it to the floor for a vote, which is hardly a given at this point, she’ll need at least one fellow GOP lawmaker to vote with her even if all Democrats support it.

“My goal is to do what’s best for the constituents who put me in this seat,” she added. “That’s what I’m going to do.” ¦

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