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Northam wants power companies to recycle pit-stored coal ash: ‘It is so important’

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) is backing a package of environmental proposals, including one that could impact Dominion Energy’s Chesterfield power plant and the controversial practice of storing coal ash in unlined pits.

Coal ash is a toxic byproduct of burning coal, and for decades, power companies nationwide stored the material in massive, unlined pits near power plants.  In some cases in Virginia, the pits sit near major waterways, including the James River, a practice that has drawn criticism and lawsuits by environmental groups for years.

Dubbed “The Water Quality and Safety Act,” the Northam-backed proposal would require power companies to recycle coal ash materials or move them to EPA-certified facilities away from waterways, the Governor’s office said.

Dominion Energy's Chesterfield Power Station.

Dominion Energy's Chesterfield Power Station.

During his remarks at the Science Museum of Virginia, Northam cited the 2014 coal ash spill by Duke Energy that resulted in millions of gallons of dark sludge containing coal ash pouring into the Dan River in North Carolina.

"It is so important that we move forward and clean up these ponds because of the damage that they are doing to our drinking water, which is precious,” Northam said.

Dominion said they are working to permanently close their coal ash storage sites and decrease the amount its plants create by converting coal-fired facilities to natural gas burning facilities.  Dominion still operates four sites were coal ash ponds or pits are present, including the Chesterfield power plant, which sites adjacent to the Henricus Historical site and the James River.

The power utility estimates there are 27 million cubic yards of coal ash available for recycling statewide and 15 million cubic yards stored at the Chesterfield site, the highest total.  A November study found that it would cost $2.7 to $5.6 billion dollars to recycle available coal ash at the four sites over 15 years.  Recycled coal ash material is used to help make cement and wallboard, Dominion said.

A coal ash pit at Dominion Energy's Chesterfield Power Station.

A coal ash pit at Dominion Energy's Chesterfield Power Station.

A spokesperson for Dominion Energy released the following statement on the proposal.

We share the governor’s commitment to protect the environment. We will review the bills when they are filed and as they go through the committee process. We will answer questions and provide information to General Assembly as it works to refine and report the bills. In regard to the coal ash, our report to the General Assembly in December, laid out several environmentally responsible options that included recycling as part of our management plan. So, we share some common ground. 

Governor Northam said he expects robust dialogue about how and who will pay for coal ash recycling if the legislation passes the General Assembly.

“I know we'll have conversation during session about how to address the cost of this, but I know we must move this material away from areas where it can contaminate our water,” Northam said.

A coal ash pit at Dominion Energy's Chesterfield Power Station.

A coal ash pit at Dominion Energy's Chesterfield Power Station.

Northam also voiced his support for the proposed Coastal Protection Act, which  "would allow the Commonwealth to use an estimated $50 million in revenue generated by the sale of carbon pollution credits to be used for coastal resilience projects, and dedicate significant funds to low-income energy efficiency and economic transition for coal communities."

Northam said the "science is clear" that human activity is causing climate change, and it will soon impact Virginia's coastline.

The General Assembly convenes Jan. 9.

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