For the next year or so, Virginia regulators won’t be able to allow the closure of coal ash ponds like the ones at Dominion Virginia Power’s Possum Point station in Dumfries — but when that process starts back up, a new governor will hold power in Richmond.
Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the General Assembly earned nearly unanimous praise from conservationists and Prince William lawmakers alike when they teamed up to put a moratorium on ash pond closures through May 2018, but the term-limited McAuliffe won’t be around to guide the next steps of how the state manages one of the most contentious environmental issues in the country.
Instead, the governor’s successor will get to determine how much (or how little) to intervene as Dominion prepares to permanently bury coal ash at sites from the D.C. suburbs to Central Virginia.
Environmentalists around the state have long argued that the ash ponds are leaking toxic heavy metals into nearby waterways, and that utility companies can’t simply close these ponds in place. Advocates like Dean Naujoks, the Potomac Riverkeeper, have repeatedly pressed lawmakers to force utilities to remove the ash from these areas entirely, or recycle it to make materials like concrete.
While Naujoks took heart at McAuliffe’s partnership with lawmakers to force this moratorium in the first place, since the new law will also require to fully study alternatives to permanently leaving the waste material in place, he’s not sure how exactly November’s election will shape the future of the state’s coal ash ponds.
“We need a candidate standing up and saying, ‘If I’m elected, I will make Dominion clean up its coal ash, and start recycling it, instead of leaving it in the ground and threatening communities,’” Naujoks said. “It comes down to leadership on this issue.”
The issue hasn’t come up much on the campaign trail as the June 13 primary for both parties draws near, but in interviews and through spokespeople, each one of the five gubernatorial candidates expressed support for the moratorium on the process. From there, they tend to diverge sharply in both proposed solutions and rhetoric on the issue, and the split doesn’t extend neatly along party lines.
Former Congressman Tom Perriello has taken perhaps the toughest stance on coal ash of the whole field in his underdog bid against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam for the Democratic nomination.
Perriello first called for a moratorium on the ash pond permitting process on March 13, and on April 22, he upped the ante. In a blog post, he pledged to “push to continue the moratorium on the dumping of coal ash into our lakes and rivers and require that polluters pay for the removal or recycling of this ash.”
“To me, the idea of clean air and clean water is not a partisan issue — it’s something everyone should agree on,” Perriello said in an interview. “The next governor of Virginia must be more aggressive in protecting Virginia's public health and waters.”
Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart is similarly aggressive on coal ash, given his experience tangling with Dominion over the Possum Point closure process in recent months. Like Perriello, the Republican doesn’t believe the utility’s “cap in place” proposal is a viable one for the area, and he firmly believes that removing or recycling the ash would be a better option.
“’I’m not going to give Gov. McAuliffe a lot of credit for most things, but I’m glad he was on our side on that one, because Dominion has been riding roughshod over Prince William County,” Stewart said in an interview. “This gives us time, and Dominion time, to come up with a real solution to fixing the potential ecological disaster down in Possum Point.”
As the most ideologically extreme of the Republicans vying for the nomination, Stewart doesn’t have too much in common with the former Obama administration diplomat. But the two march in lockstep when it comes to refusing political contributions from Dominion, a pledge that sets them apart from Northam, Republican frontrunner Ed Gillespie and state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-7th District.
“I will never take a nickel from Dominion — it’s wrong, they’re a monopoly,” Stewart said. “It should be unlawful for Dominion or its Board of Directors to give money to any member of the General Assembly, and especially to somebody running for governor.”
Indeed, the company has poured about $159,000 into the race so far to support both parties — its executives, board members, lobbyists and political action committee combined to give $113,000 to Northam, roughly $43,000 to Gillespie and $2,700 to Wagner through March 31.
“Tell me that doesn’t buy influence on things,” Naujoks said.
A spokeswoman for Gillespie declined to address the issue, while Wagner wrote in a statement that Stewart and Perriello are “just unfamiliar with the complexity of the [ash pond permitting] process” when they rail against Dominion’s political influence in Richmond.
Meanwhile, David Turner, a Northam spokesman, highlighted the lieutenant governor’s bevy of small-dollar donors as evidence that the candidate won’t be corrupted by the utility company’s generosity.
“His campaign is a grassroots-fueled effort, funded by Virginians, who trust his commitment to preserving our rich environment for future generations of Virginians,” Turner wrote in an email.
While Northam may not go quite as far as Perriello in proposing the unconditional removal or recycling of ash, the pediatric neurologist and former state senator supported the closure moratorium as soon as McAuliffe brought the proposal back before the General Assembly. However, he’s still urging patience until Dominion can complete the analysis of closure alternatives mandated by the new law, which is slated to wrap up by December.
“We have to see what the studies come back and say; we can't prejudge a solution and we should let the science dictate the solution,” Northam wrote in a statement. “As a doctor, I don't issue a diagnosis until I have all the facts. The same rule applies here.”
Northam is also pledging to pump funding back into the Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency that handles coal ash pond permitting and oversight, and fully review how the agency issues its permits.
That certainly sounds like a wise move to Naujoks, who believes DEQ’s regulators are “afraid to do the right thing” and challenge Dominion for fear of watching lawmakers turn around and cut the agency’s budget.
But he also believes that the next governor will need to shake up the agency’s leadership, particularly after the revelation that Dominion paid for DEQ head David Paylor to attend the prestigious Masters golf tournament in 2013.
“You can throw all the money you want at DEQ, but if the leader of agency continues to work on behalf of the polluters themselves, that won’t matter,” Naujoks said.
That’s why he believes an “outsider” like Perriello or Stewart may be better suited to tackle the coal ash issue, rather than someone who might preserve the “status quo” like Northam or Gillespie.
Phillip Musegaas, vice president of programs and litigation with Naujoks at the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, agrees that the next governor could make a big difference in the process by directing the DEQ to enforce stricter coal ash standards. He notes that federal laws guiding the regulation of coal ash merely set a floor for state agencies, which he believes could always “set more protective standards” for managing the material.
However, he thinks it may be difficult for any governor to unilaterally extend the May 2018 moratorium, noting that they would likely need more legislative approval to do so. That’s why Northam believes he’s the best man for that particular job, as he has a “a track record of working in a bipartisan way to get things done in Richmond."
State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th District, agrees. As one of the leading voices in passing the coal ash pond closure moratorium, he worries that Perriello doesn't fully grasp the nuances of the debate, pointing out that his statement references the ash being dumped into lakes when heavy metals seeping into rivers are the main threat.
"I saw Tom Perriello's plan and I didn't understand it," Surovell wrote in an email. "As an Eastern Shore native, Ralph Northam has been one of the staunchest advocates for the Chesapeake Bay in the Senate...I am confident he will work towards the best long-term solution to Virginia's coal ash problems."
Wagner is the only other candidate in the race with experience cutting deals in the General Assembly, and, for his part, the Virginia Beach senator doesn’t have much to say on the coal ash conundrum. He believes DEQ has handled ash pond permitting well, and “would keep the process the same, unless science shows there is a better way to seal them.”
Gillespie is similarly tight-lipped, even though he boasts a huge fundraising advantage and every public poll of the race has given the former lobbyist a substantial lead. Abbi Sigler, a Gillespie spokeswoman, wrote in an email that he’d work to “ensure the safety of Virginians” as governor and “carefully consider recommendations from experts at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and make decisions based on them and other information."
But, no matter the exact tack the governor takes once the moratorium ends, Naujoks is hoping to see a bit more force from the state’s next chief executive.
“Where is the leadership on this issue?” Naujoks said. “Is the next governor going to allow Virginia to be one of the only southern states that decides cleaning up coal ash is not a top priority for them, or are they going to hold Dominion accountable?”