Pond D at Dominion's Possum Point power station. The power company plans to treat the water and discharge it into Quantico Creek. The coal ash will be buried and permanently sealed on-site.
A few miles from a busy highway in Northern Virginia and just off the banks of a Potomac River tributary is one of the biggest coal ash ponds in the region.
Welcome to Pond D at Possum Point. Huge banks of black sooty ash. Dark murky water. A flotilla of dead trees. Beneath a metallic sheen on the water's surface is a mix of coal ash and water. The sludge can contain some of the most toxic heavy metals in existence: arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium.
“This thing is an environmental disaster," says Dean Naujoks, with the Potomac Riverkeepers Network, as he looks out over the giant black lagoon. The environmental group is helping lead the fight against Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to discharge the coal ash water from Pond D into Quantico Creek, a tributary of the Potomac.
In recent weeks, the coal ash controversy has sparked student protests, arrests at the state Capitol and legal fights across state lines. At its core, the battle is about finding the best way to drain the ponds and what level of toxic pollutants — if any — should be allowed into Virginia’s historic rivers. It’s also a story about clout and influence. Environmentalists and others say Dominion is so politically powerful in Virginia that regulators aren’t being tough enough.
“I no longer trust the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ] to handle this matter,” says Naujoks. “They’ve given Dominion basically everything it wants.”
Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks is fighting the plan to release treated coal ash water into the Quantico Creek, a tributary that feeds into the Potomac. (Patrick Madden/WAMU)
Dominion’s plan for coal ash
For decades, Dominion has stored the ash from its Possum Point power plant in wet landfills that surround the plant. Possum Point converted to natural gas in 2003, but the coal ash still sits in the manmade ponds, which collect stormwater and rain over time.
While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified coal ash as "nonhazardous,” the agency says coal ash contains toxic heavy metals and “without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water and the air.”
A recent string of environmental disasters involving coal ash helped prompt tighter EPA rules. In 2008, a coal ash impoundment ruptured in Tennessee, spilling a billion gallons of sludge over 300 acres. Six years later, a coal ash spill in North Carolina polluted 70 miles of river. In response to the new EPA rules, Dominion says it will drain and cap its ponds by 2018.
In January, the Virginia state water board approved a pair of permits that allow Dominion to discharge wastewater that contains low levels of heavy metals into the creek.
The power company says it plans to filter and treat the coal ash water at Pond D before discharging it into the creek. No coal ash, Dominion says, will be dumped into the water. Once the pond is drained, the company will cover and permanently seal the coal ash that’s left behind.
When Dominion begins discharging the water, it will monitor pollutant levels to stay within state-permitted limits.
“I would argue we have two of the most stringent permits that have been issued,” says Jason Williams, environmental manager for Dominion. Williams says the company is required by Virginia’s environmental regulators to test its water three times a week. If Dominion finds it has exceeded allowable pollutant levels, the company must immediately stop discharging the water.
“I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a condition similar to that in an industrial permit," Williams says.
But critics including Naujoks worry that coal ash wastewater could still contain toxic pollutants and do irreversible damage to Virginia’s historic rivers and wildlife.
Environmentalists want stricter regulations, and they question why Virginia allows pollutant levels that exceed those in other states. They point out that Virginia allowed levels of arsenic that were more than a dozen times greater than those allowed next door in North Carolina.
“At the very least, our rivers deserve the same level of protection as North Carolina,” says Naujoks.
DEQ spokesman William Hayden counters that pollutant levels detailed in the permits meet state and federal guidelines.
“The permits that we issue are designed to protect people. They’re designed to protect the environment,” says Hayden. “They are complex documents, and it’s easy to take some of the points that are in the permits out of context and lose sight of what’s really going on.”
In fact, Hayden says, Virginia made the water permits tougher after receiving feedback from the public.
"We got comments on the permit and made some changes to make it make it more stringent,” Hayden says.
The spokesman says DEQ treats Dominion like any other company. But critics say that’s impossible.
On Feb. 21, 2016, eight people were arrested at the state Capitol, following a march through the streets of downtown Richmond. Several hundred demonstrators gathered to protest Dominion's plan to release water from coal ash ponds into Virginia's rivers. (Patrick Madden/WAMU)
Flexing political muscle
By any measure, Dominion is a powerful force in Virginia politics. The company has a dozen lobbyists and employs thousands of people across the state. Its charitable foundation gives out millions each year to nonprofits — and of course, Dominion provides electricity for nearly every home and business in the commonwealth.
“They provide a vital public service — we all need what they have,” says Dale Eisman, a longtime reporter on Virginia politics who now works with the watchdog group Common Cause. “It’s not surprising that they would have a lot of clout and influence in the legislature.”
But Dominion’s biggest source of power might be its deep pockets. Virginia allows unlimited campaign contributions to state lawmakers, and its largest public utility has taken full advantage of those campaign finance laws.The company donated more than $1.3 million to candidates and party committees in 2014 and 2015, according to a review of the data from the Virginia Public Access Project by the Investigative Reporting Workshop.
“Politics is not a spectator sport,” says David Botkins, a spokesman for Dominion. “Our employees and our company participate in [it] just like every other industry, business, nonprofit and organization out there. That’s how democracy works.”
Dominion’s influence in Richmond has helped it win big legislative victories in recent years. In the 2015 Virginia legislative session, the utility successfully pushed for a bill that locks in base rates for seven years and exempts the company from regular rate reviews.
“If you were to ask me to put a list together of the five or 10 most powerful corporations in Richmond, I would put Dominion at the top of that list,” says Quentin Kidd, professor of political science at Christopher Newport University, "and there would be a big gap between Dominion and the second."
That power can help Dominion when it comes time for key regulatory decisions. While the company doesn’t get to dictate the terms of everything that happens in Virginia, Kidd says, it can help set up meetings or “open doors” with regulators and other key stakeholders. "I think Dominion has the ability to do that better than perhaps any corporation in Richmond,” Kidd says.
But others say Dominion is tightly regulated in Richmond. "There have been many times Dominion has not gotten its way,” says L. Preston Bryant Jr., former secretary of natural resources during the administration of former governor Tim Kaine. Bryant now works for McGuireWoods Consulting, a subsidiary of a law firm that represents Dominion. “DEQ has Dominion on a pretty tight leash,” says Bryant.
Meanwhile, Dominion’s Botkins says the company’s political donations have no bearing on how the company is treated by environmental regulators.
“Folks who lose on the policy side will tend to throw rocks at us because of the political contribution issue,” says Botkins. “I think it’s unfair.”
DEQ and Dominion
Activists are concerned about the coziness they say exists between Dominion and Virginia's environmental regulators. Public documents obtained by WAMU 88.5 show that in 2013, Dominion paid for David Paylor, the head of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality to attend the Masters golf tournament in Georgia, one of the most sought-after sports tickets in the country.
The value of the trip was estimated to be $2,300, according to Paylor’s 2013 financial disclosure statement. Dominion also picked up the tab for a $1,200 outing to O’Toole’s, an Irish pub in Augusta that Paylor patronized along with nine others.
Bill Hayden, spokesman for Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, declined to comment on the trip but noted that it was disclosed as required by law.
Dominion’s David Botkins said the Masters trip isn’t relevant because new ethics laws passed in Virginia would prohibit such gifts in the future. “I think the inference you’re making does not have merit,” says Botkins.
Records also show financial ties between Dominion and one member of Virginia’s seven-person state water-control board, which helps oversee Department of Environmental Quality activities. The board’s members are appointed by the governor. One of them, Nissa Dean, serves as the Virginia director for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. In 2015, Dominion’s charitable foundation donated $45,000 to the alliance to help fund a pair of environmental projects. Dean didn’t return phone calls or an email seeking comment.
On Jan. 14, the water board convened to vote on a pair of water discharge permits for Dominion — a necessary step in Dominion’s plan to shut down its coal ash ponds. One of the permits would allow Dominion to discharge roughly 150 million gallons of treated coal ash water into Quantico Creek. The other would allow Dominion to divert the treated wastewater into the James River from its Bremo power plant.
Hundreds of public comments were submitted to the board, the vast majority opposing the permits. According to the Bay Journal newspaper, two dozen state and local agencies — including Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources — filed letters formally opposing the plan.
But Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality recommended that the board OK the discharge permits. The board approved the permits with the lone dissenting vote cast by board member Roberta Kellum. (The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, in a statement posted to Facebook, said Nissa Dean was “silent” during the vote.)
Aerial view of the five Possum Point Coal Ash Ponds (SELC)
Lawsuits and settlements
For some people who fish near the Quantico Creek site, even a drop of wastewater from the coal ash ponds is too much.
“We would prefer that none of this water — none of this effluent — makes it into Quantico Creek,” says Martin Gary, executive secretary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. Gary says this section of the river — where the creek meets the Potomac — is “one of the most ecologically valuable” parts of the Potomac. The river’s famed Atlantic striped bass, among others, spawn near the site.
“I have not seen any data that suggests that they can say for certain that [there] won’t be toxicity to striped-bass eggs, to young American shad, or juvenile Atlantic sturgeon, which are endangered and are using the river and this habitat,” says Gary.
While fishermen wonder about pollutants in the fish they catch, environmental groups have already filed lawsuits over concerns about toxic metals in the water.
Earlier this month, the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the Potomac Riverkeepers, filed an appeal to block the water discharge permits for Possum Point.
“DEQ is allowing Dominion to empty toxic coal ash wastewater with high levels of harmful metals into a popular recreation and fishing spot, even though Dominion has readily available technology to clean the water and meet state standards,” said senior attorney Greg Buppert at the law center in a statement at the time.
It’s not just environmental groups that are challenging Dominion’s plan. In February, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh filed an appeal asking a judge in Richmond to review the Possum Point water permits. "Being good stewards of the Potomac watershed means taking extreme caution so that untreated or improperly treated coal ash does not foul waterways,” Frosh said in a statement.
Dominion has reached settlement agreements with some of the groups that have filed legal challenges to block the water discharge permits. Earlier this month, the government of Prince William County — the site of Possum Point — promised to rescind its appeal after Dominion agreed to more rigorously test and treat the water from the coal ash ponds.
The Southern Environmental Law Center also represents the James River Association in its lawsuit over water permits at the Bremo power plant. On March 9, the James River Association, which received $50,000 from Dominion’s charitable foundation last year, announced it would drop its appeal after Dominion promised to use “enhanced treatments” for the coal ash water, going much further than required by the Department of Environmental Quality permit. Dominion also promised to test James River fish for toxicity.
But other groups, including the state of Maryland and the Potomac Riverkeepers, are still moving forward with their legal challenges at Possum Point. They argue that voluntary agreements with Dominion should not replace stricter state regulations.
“The recent settlements of coal ash wastewater appeals point out just how derelict the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has been in the permitting process,” Naujoks says.
The settlements do nothing to address the coal ash itself, Naujoks says, and it will continue to threaten Quantico Creek and nearby drinking water wells once it’s capped in place at Possum Point.
After nearly a half century of burning coal to power Northern Virginia, Dominion's Possum Point power plant converted to natural gas in 2003. But the coal ash still remains. (Patrick Madden/WAMU)
Dominion and the General Assembly
On the first day of this year’s General Assembly session in Richmond, state Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) introduced a bill requiring power companies to excavate coal ash ponds and move the ash to dry landfills away from the rivers.
“Coal ash, if you store it in an unsafe environment, you run the real risk of dumping a lot of heavy metals permanently into the environment,” says Surovell, who represents portions of Prince William County. He wanted Virginia to follow the lead of North Carolina, which is moving some its coal ash inland to dry, lined landfills.
Dominion pushed back against Surovell’s legislation, highlighting both the price tag — it would cost roughly $3 billion — and the potential environmental risks of transporting tons of dry coal ash across the state by truck.
“It would be about 1.5 million truckloads,” says Jason Williams, an environmental manager at Dominion. “If you look at the overall environmental impact of trucks on the road, potential accidents, dust — that’s a detrimental social and environmental impact of the trucks.”
Besides, says Williams, the wastewater from the coal ash ponds would still need to be discharged into the rivers.
Just days before Surovell introduced the coal ash legislation on Jan. 13, Dominion donated $105,000 to state party committees — $55,000 to Republicans, $50,000 to Democrats.
Virginia law bans companies from donating while the General Assembly is in session. But it’s OK to donate right before the session starts.
“The law is very much window dressing,” says Dale Eisman with Common Cause. “January and February are not campaign season, but they are the season in Richmond when lobbyists and members are rubbing shoulders every day and things are getting done that benefit the special interests like Dominion."
Surovell’s bill went to a committee for a vote in early February. Seven members voted to pass the coal ash legislation. Seven voted against it.
The last member — Democrat Rosalyn Dance — abstained, which effectively killed the bill.
Surovell was stunned. “The one member who abstained actually has a coal ash impoundment in her district,” he says. “I was really surprised by that.”
Dance didn’t return emails or phone calls asking why she abstained on the coal ash vote.
Dance represents the Petersburg district, home of Dominion’s largest coal-burning facility in the state. Dominion is among the top five contributors to Dance’s campaigns — $23,000 over the course of her career in Richmond, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Surovell doubts he’ll try to introduce the legislation again in 2017. By then, he says, it will be too late: Virginia will likely have issued the water and waste permits Dominion needs to begin sealing off the coal ash ponds.
“Once we put this stuff under a cap, it’s going to be there for a long time,” Surovell says. “We don’t get a redo on this.”
Andrew Kreighbaum, a graduate student at the University of Missouri and a researcher at the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, contributed to this story.