BASED ON its sheer volume and its toxic content, coal ash is a big, nasty mess. In Virginia, Dominion Energy has amassed 27 million cubic yards of it, largely in unlined pits—one of them alongside the Potomac River—that allow its heavy metals and other pollutants to leach into the ground and groundwater.
For years, Dominion has been deflecting criticism on its flawed plan to leave the coal ash where it is, as it is, while capping it to prevent the infiltration of moisture that would create the leachate. Environmental experts, not to mention common sense, suggest that some sort of lining underneath the coal ash is needed to prevent seepage into the ground.
Demands for Dominion to take serious action sooner than later have risen to crescendo proportions. And with legislation on the issue advancing recently in the General Assembly, the utility may have seen the handwriting on the wall. Evidently, in Dominion’s view, the time had finally come for it to rethink its attitude, agree to do the right thing and put itself in a more favorable bargaining position.
The result is compromise legislation, brokered by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, that will require Dominion to recycle at least 25 percent of the coal ash into cinder blocks and concrete. The rest would be excavated from four Virginia sites and moved into modern, lined landfills where it can be fully encapsulated.
Not only is this good environmental news for Virginians, it sets an example and puts pressure on utilities across the country to take similar positive action.
The downside for Virginians is that they will pay for it. Though the actual language of the legislation was a work in progress at this writing, the legislation will allow Dominion to recover the costs of the $5.7 billion project because it is in the public interest that it be done.
The utility will be allowed to charge ratepayers, or customers, a maximum of $5 each per billing period, though it’s not clear for how long. Twenty years has been discussed. Dominion would also be allowed to accrue a 9 percent return for its trouble.
Any amount to be passed along to customers would be subject to approval by the State Corporation Commission. What Dominion didn’t want to do was to pay for the project itself, which would mean using a nest egg of funds that help determine its corporate financial strength and its value as far as its shareholders are concerned.
So just how much is 27 million cubic yards? According to a mathematical calculation website, consider a container the size of a football field, end zones included, filled to 10 feet—the height of the goal post crossbar. You would need about 1,266 such containers to hold 27 million cubic yards. If a typical dump truck holds 10 to 14 cubic yards, that’s as many as 2.7 million truck loads.
To say the scale of the project is massive is an understatement.
Yes, the company will be able to recover the cost of the project, but it still has to do the work in a way that contains and minimizes the collateral environmental damage, either during the excavation and transport of the material itself or the dump truck emissions.
Virginians should also appreciate the bipartisan nature of the agreement, with state Sens. Scott Surovell, a Fairfax Democrat, and Frank Wagner, a Virginia Beach Republican, leading the push. Surovell’s district includes the Possum Point Power Plant site along the Potomac in Prince William County, which no longer burns coal but has a huge coal ash lake that has been there for generations and has been blamed for toxins in nearby groundwater and residential wells.
Even the recycling component of the agreement is controversial because while the metals—arsenic, lead, mercury—are locked into concrete, they will be freed once again when the wall or structure it is used for is eventually demolished.
All things considered, the legislation to come out of this agreement with Dominion Energy is a win for Virginia. Time is the enemy when the threat is a constant, ongoing drip of toxic pollution that can threaten the long-term health of those unlucky enough to ingest it or simply be in contact with it.
There is much work to do here, but in the long run it will be worth it.