RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Environmental and water protection groups say Dominion Virginia Power is jumping the gun on the closure of coal ash impoundments at a northern Virginia power plant and they're asking state and federal regulators to step in.
The power company has taken the initial steps to move more than 1 million cubic yards of coal ash into one impoundment at the Possum Point Power Station. That would consolidate five coal ash ponds, some dating to the 1940s and dormant since the 1960s.
But critics argue that plan is inadequate, leaving a huge amount of coal ash to potentially leach into Quantico Creek, which drains into the Potomac River.
"What the company will establish, if they do that, is to create a permanent pollution problem at this site," said Gregory Buppert, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Instead, the coal ash should be removed from all five ponds, hauled away and disposed in a lined landfill, the SELC and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network argue.
Excavation and removal of coal ash is the approach being taken by Duke Energy in North Carolina, which had a catastrophic breach of a coal ash pond into the Dan River in February 2014.
Coal ash is the potentially toxic remnants of the fossil fuel burned to produce energy. It contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
While Virginia has yet to formulate plans to guide the closure of coal ash ponds across the state, the director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality stresses that Dominion's actions at Possum Point are state permitted.
"Dominion is acting according to permits they got in the past, so they're in compliance with the current rules and regulations," DEQ Director David K. Paylor said in an interview Thursday. "The jury's still out on what final closure requirements Virginia will have for them."
Dominion's chief environmental officer said the utility's plan at Possum Point is to collect more than 1 million cubic yards of ash from four smaller ponds, put them in a 120-acre pond that already contains 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash and cap it.
Pamela Faggert, who is also Dominion's vice president of corporate compliance, said the impoundment for all the ash is fully lined, but critics contend it is only partially lined.
Faggert said Dominion's operations at Possum Point are "in full compliance" with regulatory rules. "We are not doing anything we are not permitted to do," she said.
As for moving the coal ash to a landfill, she said that would be a huge, costly undertaking that would exceed the three years the capping would take.
The Possum Point Power Station, located 30 miles south of Washington on the Potomac River in Prince William County, stopped using coal to generate electricity in 2003. Today, the power plant has four generating units that either use natural gas or oil, or a combination of both.
Potomac Riverkeeper Network, citing aerial photographs and other monitoring it has conducted, detected increased activity at Possum Point this spring, signaling work to close the ash ponds. Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks has called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate.
The group's legal director, Phillip Musegaas, and Buppert said the closure is being done with little oversight.
"They've gone far beyond preliminary work and Dominion is essentially racing ahead to do as much work on the site as they can before state of Virginia and the DEQ actually comes in and has to approve a closure plan for those ponds," he said. "That's the kernel of our concern."
Del. Scott Surovell and retiring Sen. Linda "Toddy" Puller have also written to the state's secretary of natural resources, Molly Ward, to express their concerns.
Dominion said in April it would close all its coal ash ponds at four power plants in response to new federal and state rules.
The new rules are in response to the massive spill of coal ash from the Duke Energy impoundment that coated nearly 80 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge. The government criminally prosecuted Duke for the spill.
Critics state all five ponds at Possum Point have been leaking contaminated water for decades.
"All these ponds are leaking, they're leaking like a sieve," Musegaas said.
A spokesman for DEQ acknowledged the leakage of contaminants below the impoundments. "Their responsibility is to make sure that does not spread out beyond the property line," William Hayden said of Dominion.
Dominion has 30 wells on site to monitor groundwater, Faggert said, and they have not detected any levels of contaminants "of any concern to human health or the environment."
Paylor, the DEQ chief, said the state will be developing rules for the closure of coal ash ponds in the coming months.
And if they don't include capping?
"In the future, if some regulatory agency promulgates a new regulation, of course we'd comply with that as well," Faggert said.