Prince William County is lawyering up for a potential fight against Virginia Dominion Power’s controversial plan to treat and flush more than 200 million gallons of toxic coal-ash water into Quantico Creek.
During their meeting Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors voted to spend up to $40,000 for a consultant and outside lawyer to help county staff analyze the details of the permit modification approved by the Virginia State Water Control Board Jan. 14.
The permit allows the utility to continue cleaning up five coal ash ponds at the Dumfries-area Possum Point Power Plant, located on the peninsula between the Potomac River and Quantico Creek, by treating and discharging up to 2.8 million gallons of coal ash water into the creek per day when the dewatering begins.
Prince William County Attorney Michelle Robl said the county has until Feb. 16 to file its intent to appeal the permit with the Prince William County Circuit Court.
Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, said the supervisors hope to hire outside counsel as soon as possible so they can decide at their next meeting, Feb. 9 whether to take legal action.
Principi said the board would also invite a representative from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to the meeting to give a presentation on the permit and Dominion’s plans to close its coal ash ponds.
If Prince William officials appeal the permit, they would be essentially be suing the DEQ, the state agency that oversees the State Water Control Board. Robl said the county has not taken any similar action against a state agency in recent memory.
Dominion’s plan has come under fire by environmental groups as well as state and local officials, who say the permit’s limits on various coal-ash pollutants – including arsenic, lead, copper and chromium – are too high. As an example, the level of arsenic allowed in the discharge is 15 times what is allowed in North Carolina, according to lawyers with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.
Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal to make electricity, which took place at Possum Point Power Plant from its construction in 1948 until 2003. Dominion has been storing coal ash in holding ponds located around Possum Point and three other coal-burning plants around the state.
On Jan. 14, the State Water Control Board approved permits allowing Dominion to discharge coal ash water into Quantico Creek, a tributary to the Potomac River, from Possum Point Power Plant, and into the James River from the Bremo Power Plant. A petition protesting both permits has garnered nearly 7,000 signatures in recent days.
Coal ash was unregulated until the 2014 Dan River spill, when a pipe under a coal ash pond at a Duke Energy plant broke, releasing 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million gallons of untreated coal ash water into the Dan River near Eden, N.C. Duke Energy pleaded guilty to several criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act in connection with the spill.
Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, was sharply critical of the state water board’s decision last week and called Dominion “a horrible corporate citizen” for moving forward with the dewatering plans despite widespread concern.
Dominion disputes Stewart’s charge and says its plan fully complies with state and federal rules under the EPA’s rules for the safe disposal of coal combustion residuals. Pam Faggert, Dominion Virginia Power’s vice president and chief environmental officer, said it would likely be “a period of months” before the dewatering process begins.
Dominion must first submit engineering plans for treating the coal ash water to DEQ staff for their review and approval.
“It would be our intent, after we receive the permit, to submit the engineering plans promptly,” Faggert said.
The utility has already moved coal ash and water from four ponds at Possum Point to a fifth pond, known as Pond D, which has a clay liner. Dominion will need a separate solid waste permit to close Pond D, which the utility plans to do by sealing it with a synthetic liner and topping it with 24 inches of dirt. The entire cleanup is expected to take about three years.