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Dominion agrees to enhanced treatment of coal ash wastewater, testing of fish

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A group tours the Bremo Bluff Power Station. PHOTO: Dominion Virginia Power

RICHMOND, Va. — After certain conditions were reached, an appeal has been dropped that aimed to halt Dominion Virginia Power’s permit to discharge coal ash wastewater into the James River, from the Bremo Bluff plant. The utility giant and the James River Association, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), reached an agreement after Dominion committed to enhanced treatment of the coal ash pond water and to fish tissue monitoring at the Bremo station.

This news comes the day after the utility giant and Prince William County also reached a settlement agreement on releasing treated water from coal ash ponds at the company’s Possum Point Power Station.

In January the State Board granted two permits to Dominion, to begin draining the coal ash ponds at the two plants. At the Bremo plant upriver of Richmond, there are three coal ash ponds which contain approximately 357 million gallons of water (dependent on rainfall) that need to be drained over the next year and a half.

There are three coal-ash ponds which contain approximately 357 million gallons of water (dependent on rainfall) at the Bremo Bluff Power Station in Fluvanna, up river of Richmond.

There are three coal-ash ponds which contain approximately 357 million gallons of water (dependent on rainfall) at the Bremo Bluff Power Station in Fluvanna, up river of Richmond.

The SELC has always maintained there was technology to better treat the wastewater, to make it cleaner and more environmentally friendly before it hit the waterway. The technology would allow for the water to be treated in a way that it would be cleaner than the established pollutant levels allowed in the  permit issued by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

“We thank Dominion for engaging with us in a cooperative manner to address our concerns about the dewatering of Dominion’s coal ash ponds at the Bremo Power Station,” said Bill Street, James River Association chief executive officer.  “Through our agreement today, Dominion will install enhanced treatment for the wastewater that is designed to better protect all uses of the James River.”

The results of the enhanced testing of fish in the James River will be made publicly available by both Dominion and DEQ.

“The James River Association has helped us create a plan that reflects the commitment of both of our organizations to maintain the quality of the James River,” said Pam Faggert, chief environmental officer for Dominion.

The SELC said they knew Dominion was aware of such technology and followed through with the legal appeal, hoping to prompt action from the utility company. They have maintained that coupling this technology with testing to make sure the levels are acceptable will benefit the river’s health, and ensure Dominion is being a good environmental steward.

“DEQ’s weak permits compel us to fight for a strong, enforceable limits that require Dominion to treat its coal ash waste with the best available technology,” SELC senior attorney Greg Buppert said.

Bremo Bluff Power Plant can be seen in the background, along the James River. PHOTO: Dominion Virginia Power

Bremo Bluff Power Plant can be seen in the background, along the James River. PHOTO: Dominion Virginia Power

Public debate has surrounded what is considered acceptable levels in the wastewater, of various heavy metals and toxins associated with coal ash. The maximum allotment of 540 micrograms per liter (ug/L) of arsenic in the permit is higher than the 340 ug/L allowed by the Clean Water Act. Dominion has explained though that the average allowed in the permit is 290ug/L, which should be the focus because if they aren’t meeting the average, they would reach the higher end of the scale.

The DEQ has also pointed to the “mixing bowl” allowed by the permit, which is where the concentration of chemicals could be higher and violate water quality standards.

[Related: Dominion discusses the ‘2 biggest misconceptions’ about coal ash permits]

After public outcry, Dominion began to reinforce the message that they would treat the water being discharged. Company officials now maintain that the allowed mixing bowl will likely not even be needed.

Dominion said that they will utilize a multi-stage process “according to stringent, government-mandated levels before discharge.”

“We’re working with several firms that specialize in on-site wastewater treatment. Each site is being evaluated individually to select the best treatment process to protect the James and Potomac rivers and other waterways,” the company said.

A spokesperson said they plan to discharge about 1,500 gallons a minute, once the treatment site is completed sometime in April. Over an 8-hour period that would amount to 720,000 gallons, or just larger than an Olympic swimming pool of treated wastewater.

Dominion said they will pump 1,500 gallons a minute, or about the amount of a above ground swimming pool. That stands in contrast to the 5.5 million gallons of the James River in the spot where they are dumping.

Dominion said they will pump 1,500 gallons a minute, or about the amount of a above ground swimming pool. That stands in contrast to the 5.5 million gallons of the James River in the spot where they are dumping.

First the wastewater is drained, then the coal ash solids are taken care of

Next Dominion will need permits to address the stabilization of the coal ash, which will be a solids permit. The hearing for the solid waste permit will be in April.

At the plant closest to Richmond, the ash from one pond will be removed and a portion of the pond will be lined and repurposed as a wastewater treatment pond for the station, according to Dominion. The rest of the pond will be filled with clean soil and planted with natural grasses, they said.

The remaining two ponds will be closed in place using an engineered cover system consisting of a high-density polyethylene layer, covered by 24 inches of soil, and vegetative cover to blend with the existing landscape. The cover system will protect ash from rainfall and protect groundwater, they said.

You can read the other plans here. 

The DEQ permit is here.

CBS 6 reports on coal ash are here.

Video clips from the Q & A are below.