RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Virginia’s largest power provider has moved closer to meeting a federal deadline to close pools of power-plant waste sitting in coal ash ponds across the state, but environmentalists say one proposed method of dealing with the problem risks the safety of nearby residents.
A report released by Dominion Energy on Wednesday afternoon outlines a plan that aims to recycle 45 percent of collected coal ash from five sites across the commonwealth over the next 15 years. The remaining coal ash ponds will be “capped and closed” or their waste will be moved to a permanent storage facility.
Costs estimates for the plan range from $2.3 to $5.6 billion.
It’s the idea of the cap and close method that has environmental activists concerned.
“The consequences of coal ash are only going to get worse as we face an uptick in extreme weather events exacerbated by climate-changing fossil fuel fired plants,” Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, said in a statement after the release of Dominion’s report. “Each extreme weather event brings new threats to coal ash impoundments across Virginia. By continuing to lobby for cap in place, Dominion is betting the safety of Virginians on luck instead of exploring market-ready recycling options by cleaning up its coal ash problem.”
The coal ash is a wealth of toxic contaminants. Spills from ash ponds have lead to increased levels of arsenic, barium and many more dangerous chemicals in nearby communities.
Dominion’s 72-page report is the result of both environmental regulations passed by the Obama administration in 2015 and a state legislation calling for a study. The federal guidelines require the ponds to be closed by 2032 while Virginia legislators wanted to see a cost reduction from a similar plan released last year.
For decades, according to the report, coal ash ponds were the accepted form of storing the byproduct of coal-fired power plants. But a 2014 spill at an ash pond along the Virginia-North Carolina border resulted in new federal and state regulations.
Dominion is now on the hook for taking care of 27 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash.
Moving the coal ash to a different permanent site is the most costly method, as it requires removal of the waste and the creation of a new, sealed pond at a new location.
Another method, called “encapsulated beneficial use,” has garnered support as an environmentally friendly and economically viable alternative. It involves binding the coal ash into a concrete mix that “minimizes [harmful chemicals] mobilization into the surrounding environment,” according to coal-ash management company The SEFA Group. The sale of the resulting concrete can help cut down on the overall cost of the coal ash removal.
Then there’s the practice of burying and sealing existing ponds, known as “cap and close.” It is considered the cheapest option and has been used in the past to deal with the toxic waste, but leaks from ash ponds can lead to environmental damage and costly litigation or fines.
North Carolina’s Duke Energy is facing a $102 million settlement over the 2014 spill. Fears that a similar accident could happen in Virginia have lead environmental groups like the Sierra Club to harangue Dominion for suggesting a return to the controversial cap and close method.
“Unsurprisingly, Dominion’s stance towards coal ash continues to put profit over people,” Addleson, director of the group’s Virginia chapter, said. “The corporation is disregarding the safety of Virginians by diminishing the opportunities presented by recycling, the most cost-effective way to protect our communities.”
Dominion spokesman Robert Richardson, however, said in a statement to Courthouse News that the company “is committed to protecting our environment and any potential impact from coal ash has our full attention.”
Getting rid of Dominion’s ash ponds has long been the target of Virginia lawmakers who see them as an accident waiting to happen. While the company wanted to start closing them years ago, officials put those plans on hold until they developed a plan that met their expectations for cost and environmental friendliness.
An initial study estimated the costs of recycling the state’s coal ash to be between $7 and $11 billion. This caused extensive pushback from citizens and legislators alike, leading to Wednesday’s report after another successful legislative effort earlier this year.
And it seems the report is finding support among those who requested it.
"Dominion's report confirms that we can recycle coal ash, clean the environment for good, and create jobs using innovative technology at a reasonable cost,” Virginia Senator Scott Surovell, one of the authors of the legislation, said in an email to Courthouse News.
Surovell said he’s spent the last four years fighting to get rid of, or safely store, the coal ash located in his Northern Virginia district. In addition to addressing environmental concerns, he said he was pleased with the new report’s price tag, which is less than half of last year’s estimate.
Back at Dominion, Richardson said the price difference between the two plans was related to the open-ended nature of the first plan. Contractors were initially asked to submit coal ash recycling plans without a deadline, but this time they were asked them to stick to the 15-year-deadline imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Questions still remain after the release of Wednesday’s report, such as how exactly the project will be paid for.
Richardson didn’t have all the answers, but said that was the purpose of the report: to help the lawmakers who are empowered to make those final decisions.
“This report is intended to aid legislators as they do their own research into this issue. We want this report to inform their opinions,” he said. “Our final solution will be fully protective of the environment.”
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.