Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, D, on Thursday announced plans for an environmental legislative package, a portion of which would require Dominion Energy to excavate all its coal ash pits and recycle the materials.
The Water Quality and Safety Act would direct the utility to remove 27 million cubic yards of coal ash, in contrast with its preferred method of keeping the waste in pits near its power plants, often leaving the bottom unlined and in contact with groundwater.
- The move comes after two years of legislative work regulating the disposal facilities in Virginia, eventually resulting in a report that found complete excavation would be more cost effective than initially estimated, after a state-required request for proposals resulted in a number of companies soliciting bids for the recycled waste.
Northam's move comes in the midst of a national debate over coal ash storage practices. Environmentalists argue that utilities' preferred method of capping the waste in unlined pits is irresponsible, and a recent Earthjustice report found that 67 coal plants across 22 states are reporting levels of contamination at their storage sites that exceed federal groundwater standards.
The governor's support is "a very clear acknowledgment about what we have been saying for years, which is 'leaving this stuff where it is' is not acceptable," Nate Benforado, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Utility Dive. "You'll certainly hear from the utility side that excavation is going to be much more expensive, and I'm not really sure that's true."
"The economic benefits you get from responsible closure has been shown to improve property value, it employs more workers in longer, better jobs," he added. "No one argues that excavation won't work. It's a proven solution. And when you combine it with recycling it's proven to be cost effective."
Dominion noted that its report released in November listed recycling the material as part of its management plan.
"So, we share some common ground," the company said in a statement, which noted that Dominion would "review the bills when they are filed and as they go through the committee process."
"This summer's review confirmed we can innovatively recycle coal ash while creating Virginia jobs at minimal cost," said State Senator Scott Surovell, D, who will introduce the bill along with Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, D, in a statement.
"Dominion's original proposal to permanently store coal ash in ponds has been proven unwise — the time has come to resolve the coal ash issue once and for all and to ensure clean rivers and drinking water for everyone."
Dominion has four main sites of concern on the Chesapeake watershed, according to Benaforado, which are all low-lying and sit on groundwater connected to rivers.
In the southeast, sites like these are of a particular concern because of their proximity to major waterways, which makes contamination a major risk during storms and heavy rains. In September Hurricane Florence triggered a spill of more than 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash from Duke Energy's Sutton plant facility in North Carolina, and flooded three ponds near the shuttered H.F. Lee plant.
"We can easily see some of those events creating similar problems in Virginia," said Benaforado. "And that's something we hope Virginia can take a proactive step to avoid. We've been spared the worst but it's time to act."
The legislative package includes the Coastal Protection Act, which will put $50 million toward coastal resilience and fund energy efficiency programs for low income households as well as "economic transition for coal communities." It also includes the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund Amendments Act, intended to reduce stormwater runoff, and two bills on shellfish aquaculture.
The legislature in Virginia begins its session on Wednesday.