2016-05-18 / News

At state senator’s request, Dominion welcomes critics

By Jim McConnell

State Sen. Amanda Chase wants to create an ongoing dialogue between Dominion and her constituents. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer State Sen. Amanda Chase wants to create an ongoing dialogue between Dominion and her constituents. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Virginia’s embattled utility giant is opening the doors of its Chesterfield facility to some of its harshest local critics.

Members of citizen groups Hands Across the Lake and Chesterfield Citizens for Responsible Government are expected to participate in a May 19 tour of Dominion Virginia Power’s Dutch Gap plant.

The tour was arranged by state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who has emerged as one of the General Assembly’s leading Republican voices in an ongoing discussion about Dominion’s controversial coal ash storage ponds.

“My goal is to facilitate a positive working relationship and figure out what’s going on,” Chase said in an interview last week. “Let’s educate ourselves and go from there.”

To the surprise of many, Chase signed on as co-sponsor of a bill introduced earlier this year by fellow freshman Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) that would’ve required Dominion to remove tons of coal ash from unlined ponds and store it in dry, lined landfills.

Surovell’s bill died in a deadlocked Senate committee in early February.

Chase said she backed the legislation to give it bipartisan support and bring it to the attention of the Senate’s Republican leadership.

“I wanted to raise a flag that this is an issue that is important to my constituents, and we need to take it seriously,” she added.

The disposition of Dominion’s coal ash ponds has been hotly debated both in Chesterfield and across the commonwealth.

Coal ash, a byproduct created by burning coal to generate electricity, has been found to contain a number of heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury, lead, chromium and selenium.

At its power stations along the James and Potomac rivers, Dominion mixes tons of coal ash with water and stores the resulting gray slurry in large ponds.

Both coal ash ponds at the company’s Dutch Gap plant were built before the government required installation of synthetic liners and other environmental protections.

As a result, citizens argue, the toxic elements contained in coal ash have been leaching into the soil underneath the ponds for decades – and will continue to do so unless the ash is excavated and transported to a lined landfill.

“Unlined coal ash ponds are a ticking time bomb,” said Peter Martin, a member of Hands Across the Lake, during Dominion’s February hearing before the county’s Planning Commission. “We have a potential Superfund site being created here by not digging this stuff up.”

Dominion received approval from the Board of Supervisors in March to proceed with construction of a state-of-the-art, lined coal ash landfill at its Chesterfield power station.

The landfill will have a total capacity of 9.6 million cubic yards. Based on the amount of coal ash being produced annually in Chesterfield, the new landfill will give Dominion the ability to store 20 years of newly generated coal ash.

To some citizens’ chagrin, none of the ash currently being stored in the slurry ponds is expected to be transported to the new landfill.

Dominion’s representatives at the General Assembly argued that requiring the company to remove all coal ash from its storage ponds would cost $3.2 billion and result in increases to customers’ monthly bills.

During a February interview with the Observer, Dominion officials said that the Environmental Protection Agency long ago approved the practice of capping unlined municipal solid waste landfills in place and that its plan to cover the coal ash ponds falls into the same category.

The company plans to drain water from the ponds, then cover the ash with a layer of soil before installing an impermeable synthetic liner and a drainage device to capture rainwater and ensure that the ash remains dry. That will be covered with two additional feet of soil.

Dominion insists that by keeping water from reaching the coal ash, it will alleviate the issue of metals leaching into the soil.

“We also will have an extensive monitoring system to make sure the groundwater is protected,” said Jason Williams, Dominion’s manager of environmental services.

Members of Hands Across the Lake and Chesterfield Citizens for Responsible Government have joined forces in an effort to determine whether groundwater near the Dutch Gap plant already has been contaminated by leachate from Dominion’s unlined coal ash ponds.

They also continue to question whether one of the ponds is located within the James River flood plain, and thus potentially could dump tons of toxic ash into the river during a significant flooding event.

“We’re not talking about money – we’re talking about people’s lives,” said Judy Stoneman, a leader of Chesterfield Citizens for Responsible Government.

The citizen groups appear to have found an ally in Chase, who acknowledged that she received a $3,500 campaign contribution from Dominion last year, but insisted it wouldn’t prevent her from “voting my conscience.”

The state lawmaker envisions this week’s tour not as “a one-time thing,” but part of an ongoing dialogue between Dominion and her Chesterfield constituents.

“We do need to be careful about increasing the cost of producing electricity for our citizens, but we also need to be good stewards of our natural resources,” Chase added. “We have to keep asking questions and getting more information.”

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