RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., stood on the starboard side of a 45-foot pontoon boat on the James River and recalled his youth growing up along the Rappahannock River, about 100 miles to the north.
He and his father spent nearly every Saturday on its banks fishing, he said. And he laughed as he admitted he sometimes struggled to find the nerve to bait his hook with a wriggling worm.
McEachin’s mood turned serious, however, as the boat moved closer to Dominion Energy’s Chesterfield Power Station, the largest fossil-fueled power generation facility in the state.
“We need to keep fighting to make sure children can have the same sort of experience as I did,” the congressman said.
McEachin and clean-water advocates scheduled their Friday boat tour to discuss their concerns over an Environmental Protection Agency plan to roll back regulations governing the safe disposal of coal ash. According to the environmentalists, the move would potentially spell disaster for the James River and other local waterways.
The current regulations, called the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residual from Electric Utilities final rule, were put in place by the Obama administration in 2015. They were drafted, in part, as a result of a 2014 coal ash leak that saw an estimated 39,000 tons of the hazardous waste to pour into the Dan River along the Virginia/North Carolina border.
This waste, according to a 2016 Duke University study of coal ash ponds throughout the Southeastern United States, contains “high levels of toxic heavy metals including arsenic and selenium.”
The study also found that utility retention ponds, the massive man-made lakes created to hold the waste, can leak dangerous levels of these chemicals into the ground water, which eventually makes its way into rivers and other water systems.
The Obama-era regulations established guidelines for the disposal of waste that comes from burning coal for power.
But now EPA, under Administrator Scott Pruitt, is looking to significantly ease those regulations, explaining that doing so “would save the regulated community between $31 million and $100 million per year.”
The agency is holding public comment events, including one in Northern Virginia, this week, with an April 30th deadline for all public comment on the issue.
The planned changes would affect about 400 power plants across the country, including The Chesterfield power. The facility, which sits directly on the banks of the James River, consumes on average about 8,400 tons of coal each day. It also burns natural gas and distillate oil.
Jamie Brunkow, one of the clean water advocates attending Friday’s river tour, said he’s wary of any plan that could potentially lead to more pollution of local waters.
“[EPA’s plan] to roll these regulations back will put our communities and rivers at risk,” said Brunkow, a local “riverkeeper” for the nonprofit James River Association.
As he spoke, the pontoon boat slowed to give Rep. McEachin a better look at Chesterfield Power Station.
“We manage our household garbage better than we manage coal ash,” Brunkow continued.
According to the environmentalist, there are currently 11 coal ash retention ponds in place in the state, but 10 of them lack protective liners. Brunkow said these unlined ponds, created before water and environmental regulations mandated such safeguards, have an increased chance of failing and releasing pollutants into the environment.
He said if it was up to him and his organization, coal ash would be shipped to better-lined ponds, further away from vulnerable water bodies. Better still he said, would be to recycle the material, incorporating it into concrete — a common longstanding practice in North and South Carolina.
“We want comprehensive plans for each site, but we mainly want the ash moved,” Brunkow said. “Keeping the federal rules will help us do that.”
Madeleine Foote, of the Washington, D.C.-based League of Conservation Voters, said while the EPA and utilities are looking to do away with tighter regulator controls on power plants, the general public is just now beginning to learn the extent to which coal ash contamination is impacting their lives.
Under the Obama administration guidelines, utilities are required to test the ground water around their coal ash ponds, and report any contamination they find.
Foote said data gathered during the first round of tests is only now becoming available to the League of Conservation Voters and other groups, and with the public comment period for the new regulatory regime set to expire in a week, those organizations are struggling to interpret and distribute the information in time for it to inform the discussion.
“We haven’t even gotten to see what the baseline is … and they’re getting rid of all those requirements for data collection,” Foote said. “Sometimes it can take a while for the contaminate to migrate into the surface and groundwater, so if you cut that monitoring short, you won’t know if these closed ponds are leaking.”
Dominion Energy says it has worked hard and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with the Obama-era regulations. This includes $300 million spent on a water treatment facility to clean up waste from the Chesterfield Power Station.
“Dominion Energy is working towards full compliance of the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule as written,” said Dominion Energy spokesman Rob Richardson.
He said his industry is regulated not only at the federal level, but also by the state, and any change by the EPA would likely force changes locally. Until then, however, Dominion plans to continue to conform to the Obama regulations and those adopted by the state to carry them out.
And the company is already getting on board with some of James River Association’s goals. A piece of legislation signed into law earlier this year requires the company to issue a request for proposals for projects that would lead to recycling the byproduct.
Dominion Energy says it has already recycled about 700,000 tons of plant by-products, during them into everything from bowling alley flooring to construction materials for houses.
The utility has also conducted a General Assembly-mandated study to find solutions for closing the ponds and found several possibilities that meet state and federal standards.
Richardson said he could not comment on how the Trump administration’s proposed changes might impact Dominion Energy’s operations if and when the changes occur.
A representative of the EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.