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Historic coal ash cleanup agreement aims to eliminate toxic threat to clean water

RICHMOND, Va. -- Massive amounts of toxic coal ash will soon be recycled or moved away from Virginia waterways, based on a plan announced Thursday morning by Governor Northam (D), a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers, and backed by both power companies and environmental groups. Governor Northam called the proposal a "historic agreement" that would protect Virginia from environmental disaster and taxpayers from bearing the burden of the cost of clean up.

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.

“This agreement represents a key breakthrough in preserving our natural resources and protecting water quality,” said Governor Northam. “Our effort will ensure we are disposing of coal ash in the safest, most environmentally-responsible way, and I want to recognize the General Assembly and members of my team for coming together around a solution.”

"I live near the Appomattox River and know how important it is to protect our waterways,” said Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) "This is a responsible, middle-ground approach that will minimize truck traffic in communities close to these power stations while still protecting our rivers, Chesapeake Bay tributaries, and our drinking water."

The plan calls on power companies to recycle at least 25 percent of the coal ash they currently store in unlined pits near power plants.  The material is turned into common building materials, officials said.

The 25 percent recycling level is only baseline, meaning power companies could recycle more of the material if feasible both practically and economically.  Since storing coal ash in unlined pits was a common and approved practice for decades, officials said it may not be possible to recycle some of it.  Portions of the coal ash ponds were first stored in the 1930s, environmental groups said.

The rest of the coal ash would be moved to either EPA certified landfills or newly constructed lined pits.

Dominion Energy estimates there are 27 million cubic yards of coal ash stored 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.

Officials estimated the cost of the clean up will be $3 billion over 15 years. Power customers will pay for the cost of the cleanup, but officials said the plan includes protections to cap the annual amount of power companies can charge customers. Lawmakers said customers would never see increases of more than $5 on a given month's power bill.

Officials said customers would not being to see charges related to coal ash clean up until 2021.

“One, we’re taking this toxic waste off of our riverbanks. We’re putting it into EPA designed landfills or recycling it.  And secondly, by doing so, not only are we paying to clean up the mess, we’re ensuring we don’t have to pay twice to clean it up if there was a disaster," said Michael Town, Executive Director of Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

"Dominion Energy supports the comprehensive agreement reached by the Governor, legislative leaders, and members of the General Assembly that accomplishes clean closure, minimizes truck traffic, and prudently manages customer costs for the closing of ash ponds at our power stations," a Dominion spokesperson said in a statement.

“This agreement represents remarkable progress towards cleaning up toxic coal ash that for years has threatened public health and Virginia’s waterways. Moving coal ash out of the unlined pits near our waterways is the only way to ensure hazardous metals stay out of Virginia’s major rivers and the Chesapeake Bay," said Rebecca Tomazin, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia.

Multiple lawmakers in both the House of Delegates and Senate are carrying legislation related to the plan. Northam said when they reach his desk, he plans to sign them into law.

Multiple leaders and elected officials 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 as the type of disaster this plan would help avoid.

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