Keeping Coal Ash Out of Rivers by Recycling

Sep 14, 2018

After decades of burning coal to make electricity, Dominion Energy is left with massive amounts of ash containing toxics compounds that can pollute water.  The company says it would be very expensive to move 25 million tons of the stuff from ponds along the James, Potomac and Elizabeth Rivers. 

Now, however, Dominion has discovered a big market for coal ash – one that could help to offset the costs of clean up.

A coal ash pond at Dominon's Possum Point power station
Credit WAMU

Four years ago Duke Energy spilled 40,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River – a disaster that cost millions to clean up.  That accident caught the attention of Virginia State Senator Amanda Chase and her constituents in Chesterfield, where Dominion Energy stores ash from the last of the state’s coal-burning power plants.

“One thing that stuck out to me was that there was a flood plain right in the middle of this coal ash pond," she recalls.  "I also noticed that this football field-sized coal ash mound is sitting right next to the James River.  We’re talking within feet.”

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said river water was not contaminated, but the Southern Environmental Law Center found otherwise.

“We have documented contamination of the groundwater, documentation that these sites are leaking, that the groundwater at these sites flows into the rivers. That’s what groundwater does,” says Nate Benforado, an attorney with the SELC.

“At Chesterfield, for example, it’s adjacent to a conservation area where people hike, where people kayak.  We’ve done sampling in these public areas and we see very high levels of things like arsenic.”

Other toxics were detected near coal ash storage ponds in Chesapeake, Fluvanna and Prince William Counties.

“A lot of these are actually naturally occurring,"  Benforado explains, "but when you burn coal you’re actually concentrating things that don’t burn -- things like lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, radium.  Radium is a radioactive element that we think of more in terms of nuclear waste, but it’s also present in coal ash, and we’re seeing very high levels of it at the Virginia sites.”

The news alarmed Senator Chase who introduced a bill requiring Dominion to figure out what it would cost to clean up these sites.

“The most important thing for me as a legislator and as a mom is to make sure that we are creating a barrier between the groundwater and that coal ash that’s still there,” she says.

Dominion concluded it would be very expensive to move coal ash into pits lined with plastic and clay.  The SELC’s Benforado disagrees, noting other states are finding the money to do the job.

“In South Carolina, for example, they have about the same amount of ash as Virginia does, and every single unlined impoundment is either being dug up and put into a modern landfill or recycled for cement and concrete.”

Chase didn’t actually like the idea of moving coal ash to lined landfills.

“We didn’t want to create a second public health issue by trucking coal ash off of the property – having hundreds of thousands of truckloads of coal ash going through residential communities on our roads that we travel on.”

But she and other lawmakers thought recycling on site made sense, and they asked the utility to put out a request for proposals from companies that could use ash to make bricks, roofing materials, cement and concrete.  Dominion spokesman Robert Richardson says the company has  reached out to firms  in Virginia and in the region, asking for  proposals to recycle coal ash at Bremo, Chesapeake, Chesterfield and Possum Point power stations.’

"To date," he says, "about 60 companies have said they have some level of interest in that.”

Dominion will stop accepting offers on September 15 and will spend the next two months crafting a business plan to address the coal ash problem.  It may still be expensive for the company and the state, but Senator Chase says we can pay now or later.  After all, she notes, "Cancer is expensive!” 

And attorney Nate Benforado says there are economic advantages to clean-up – higher property values, improved public health and a lower risk of lawsuits over pollution.