Could a coal-ash spill happen in Virginia?
Regulators, utilities brace for new federal regulations in December
Jeffrey Steers vividly recalls newsreel footage from December 2008, when a dike failure at a fossil plant owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority sent a river of toxic coal ash sluicing through the town of Kingston, about 40 miles west of Knoxville. Steers, director of the division of land protection and revitalization at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, sympathized with the mess his colleagues in Tennessee were facing.
But he also knew Virginia would have to be on guard. The high-profile incident spurred the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to rigorously reassess the safety of coal-ash impoundments across the country, including more than a dozen sites in Virginia. “The images from Kingston were compelling and served as a real wakeup call to make sure we have the right regulations in place to assess dam safety,” Steers says.
Then, in February, Steers experienced a sense of déjà vu when Duke Energy Corp. announced a corrugated pipe burst beneath its retention pond near Eden, N.C., dumping more than 39,000 tons of ash in the Dan River and threatening the drinking-water supply for much of Southern Virginia. (See related story.)
State officials have refrained from hitting the panic button. Extensive testing of water samples by Duke found that the drinking water quality remained safe. Duke completed its cleanup work along the Dan River in July, removing 2,500 tons of coal ash and river sediment from a location just upstream of the Schoolfield Dam in Danville.
Still with Virginia surrounded by the twin calamities, it’s enough to make people wonder whether a similar catastrophe could happen here. State regulators, electric utilities and policymakers are in a “hurry up and wait” mode, bracing for new rulemaking on coal ash expected from the EPA in December.
In the meantime, a similar coal-ash spill in Virginia is “very unlikely,” says Ed Baine, vice president of Dominion’s Power Generation System Operations. Baine cited “significant differences” in how Dominion constructs and manages its facilities, compared with other power companies.
“Our ash facilities, both ponds and landfills, are inspected on a regular basis — periodically by station operations personnel, quarterly by station environmental coordinators and yearly by our certified dam engineer. In addition, they are subject to unannounced annual inspections by state agencies. When we discover issues, we move quickly to both report and correct them,” Baine says.
Still, Virginia does have a history with spilled coal ash, albeit not recently and not involving Dominion. In 1967, an Appalachian Power Co. fly ash impoundment collapsed along Virginia’s section of the Clinch River near Carbo, resulting in a “massive mussel kill up to 12 miles downstream of the power plant,” according to a 2003 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Making piles of ash
Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-burning power plants, including fly ash, bottom ash, slag from boilers and flue-gas emissions. Like the coal itself, these byproducts — formally known as coal combustion residuals — contain varied concentrations of heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, lead and selenium. Some coal ash is approved for use in building and industrial products, including gypsum board, concrete blocks and structural fill for highway barriers.
After the Kingston spill, the EPA reviewed nearly 630 ash ponds in 33 states, including Virginia. The agency has not disclosed its regulatory plans, although there is speculation it will begin phasing in requirements on dam owners to drain existing ponds and retrofit them with composite liners or leachate-collection systems — a massive and costly undertaking. EPA also is expected to determine whether coal ash should be reclassified as hazardous waste.
“I can’t picture the economics of a facility [having] to retrofit an existing pond,” which would involve temporarily removing and storing the ash during construction, Steers says.
Environmental groups argue the cost is worth the investment in public safety, pointing out that lined storage typically is required at municipal landfills and similar waste facilities.
“Virginians will remain at risk until the toxic coal ash is removed from unlined, earthen pits near the rivers upon which we rely for drinking water and recreation,” says Deborah Murray, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville.
Despite the spills in neighboring states, DEQ has no specific plans to step up inspection at ash lagoons. Pond owners already are required to submit operating reports monthly for review by state regulators, Steers says, which coupled with quarterly tests of surface water and of groundwater have proven to be sufficient safeguards.
“When you look at EPA’s big chart comparing our state to others, it’s comforting that we didn’t have any coal-ash ponds rated among the worst,” Steers says, referring to a list of 64 slurry ponds the federal agency ranked in March as either “high” or “significant” potential hazards.
That wasn’t always the case. As recently as 2013, eight ash ponds in Virginia —six by Dominion, two by AEP — were deemed by EPA to have “significant” hazard potential, which indicates “no probable loss of life but economic loss, environment damage, disruption of lifeline facilities” and other potential impacts. (see map of currently regulated coal-ash impoundments in Virginia)
So what’s changed? Utilities say they have bolstered the discipline and frequency of their inspection procedures and taken other steps to harden their coal-fired generating facilities. Some of those facilities are being closed or switched to natural gas.
In 2013, EPA rated a bottom ash and sedimentation pond at Dominion’s Chesapeake Energy Center to be in “poor” condition and a significant hazard. Dominion is in the process of draining and capping the facility and expects to retire it before 2015. Nearly one million tons of coal ash is stored at the site.
EPA also gave a poor rating to American Electric Power’s Clinch River impoundment — the one that failed in 1967 and which was decommissioned last year. (AEP is the parent company of Appalachian Power.) Before shutting the facility down, AEP added an impermeable cap liner and major channels to divert offsite runoff, according to state inspection reports from June.
But evaluating the hazard-assessment ratings themselves is a tricky business. A coal-ash dam that satisfies state regulatory requirements for safe operation may still be deemed by EPA to be a high or significant hazard, based on its proximity to population centers or key infrastructure should it fail.
“The hazard potential is based on what’s downstream of the dam,” says Robert Bennett, director of the division of dam safety at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, or DCR.
Utilities feel the heat
There are 13 active coal-ash ponds in Virginia, including seven owned by Dominion and four owned by AEP. In addition, packaging manufacturer MeadWestvaco Corp. operates a fly ash lagoon in Alleghany County, while chemical maker Celanese Acetate Co. runs a bottom-ash settling pond at its Giles County plant in Narrows.
Dominion says it discharged 1.04 billion pounds of coal ash to its ponds in 2013, compared with 686.6 million pounds in 2012. After the Duke Energy incident, Dominion immediately inspected its seven active ash lagoons in Virginia and determined none had any type of underground pipes beneath them, Baine says.
The company also used robotic video equipment to inspect the interior of all outlet pipes — a new procedure that will occur every two years, says John Smatlak, vice president of Dominion’s Power Generation Technical Services.
All told, Dominion has seven active ash ponds and two inactive ash ponds. It operates four wet-ash ponds — two at Chesterfield Power Station at Dutch Gap and two at Bremo Power Station in Fluvanna County — although the Bremo ponds have not received ash since the plant’s conversion from coal to natural gas in 2013. Two ash ponds at Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station near Dumfries remain active but likewise have not received ash since it quit burning coal in 2003.
The Dan River spill spurred Dominion in June to request that DCR add six dams to its inspection inventory, five of which are associated with ash impoundments. The facilities have been out of use for decades and were built before Virginia enacted regulations on dam construction and closure, spokesman Dan Genest says. The list includes two ash ponds at Bremo, one each at Chesapeake and Chesterfield, and a consolidated pond and an oil-water-treatment basin dam at Possum Point.
Smatlak says The Dutch Gap plant is in the midst of a changeover, with an upper pond in the process of being closed “over the next few years.” Dominion has received approval from Chesterfield County to construct a new ash landfill once the upper pond is filled, at which time it will drain, cap and close the lower ash pond at Dutch Gap — formerly classified by EPA as a significant potential hazard.
Appalachian Power provides electricity to customers in Southern and Southwest Virginia. AEP is shutting down its two coal-fired plants in Virginia, which means disposal of fly ash soon will no longer be required at those facilities, company spokesman John Shepelwich said.
That includes AEP’s 335-megawatt Glen Lyn Plant in Giles County, which is scheduled to be retired by 2016. Also in 2016, AEP plans to finish converting the 705-megawatt Clinch River Plant to burn natural gas.
Ash-collection facilities at Appalachian Power’s coal plants “received extensive inspections” in the wake of the Dan River incident and no issues were found, Shepelwich said. He said internal inspections are made daily, weekly and quarterly, which are an adjunct to DCR’s independent observations.
MeadWestvaco’s operations-and-maintenance certificate from Virginia expires Sept. 30, and the company is expected to close the facility permanently by April 2019. DCR inspectors are working with MeadWestvaco to assess the condition of a buried decanting riser and conduit “to prevent the possibility of an uncontrolled release of ash similar to the one recently in North Carolina,” according to an inspection report in May.
Celanese Acetate’s pond near the New River in Narrows was added to the state’s inspection inventory only in January. State inspection records classify it a “high hazard” due to its proximity to both the river and an adjacent major railroad line. State dam inspectors visited the site in May but were unable to perform a major inspection due to “dense brush and trees” on the embankment — a situation the company is said to be remedying.
Discharge is monitored every day, and the pond is equipped with an impermeable polymer liner about 500 feet from the New River, spokesman Travis Jacobsen says. An alarm system triggers when abnormalities are detected.
Until December, when the new regulations are revealed, state officials remain on heightened alert, the images from Tennessee and North Carolina fresh in their minds. “We have the legislation and we have the regulations,” Bennett says. “For us, it’s just important to remain vigilant.”