Prince William County officials announced an agreement with Dominion Virginia Power late Tuesday they say will better protect Quantico Creek from pollution related to treated coal-ash water.
The agreement comes just three days before the county would have had to file its formal appeal against Virginia over the modified wastewater permit the state Department of Environmental Quality approved for the utility in January.
Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, a leader in the county’s fight against Dominion’s coal-ash disposal plans at the Possum Point power plant, said the board agreed to the deal because they believed it better than what they likely would have won in court, considering the vague legal standard outlined in federal regulations.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stipulates that coal-ash contaminated water be treated with “best available technologies.”
“It [is] very subjective and our county attorney didn’t think we had solid ground to appeal,” Principi said, noting that the county’s legal team estimated the chance of a favorable outcome at only 10 percent.
“When it got right down to it, it was: Do we want to take our chances with 10 percent or do we want to negotiate a settlement and get what we thought was best?” Principi said.
The settlement was announced at the end of the supervisors’ Tuesday meeting, after the board retreated into closed session for about two hours.
Board Chairman Corey Stewart – who earlier in the meeting called Dominion “a scoundrel” and “a big, arrogant, nasty corporation” during a discussion about the board’s opposition to Dominion’s preferred route for a new, high-voltage power transmission line in Haymarket – made the announcement about the deal, calling it “good news.”
“It almost removes any [coal-ash contaminants] from the water that will flow into the creek,” Stewart said. “Without a doubt, [the water] will be absolutely clean.”
But Principi said he couldn’t quite agree with Stewart’s assessment.
“The water will be cleaner,” Principi said. “The operative word is cleaner.”
The agreement was not immediately available, but Principi said it targets six coal-ash contaminants know to be harmful to human and aquatic health in high concentrations: arsenic, lead, copper, antimony, thallium and selenium.
Compared to the existing permit, the settlement requires Dominion to adhere to stricter limits on those contaminants when it releases an estimated 200 million gallons of water into Quantico Creek from its remaining coal ash pond at Possum Point Power Plant, near Dumfries.
Principi said the Dominion agreed to limits that amount to 66 percent reduction in selenium, a 71 percent reduction in lead, a 66 percent reduction in copper and 50 percent reductions in antimony and thallium.
Neither chromium nor hexavalent chromium, which are also dangerous metals known to be associated with coal ash, are addressed in the settlement.
Regarding their omission, Principi said only that the board was not a party to the negotiations, “only our attorneys were.”
Dominion has also agreed to new testing stipulations, including that it will use “an independent, state certified laboratory” for testing and that it will conduct “hourly tests,” details for which were not immediately available. The existing permit requires Dominion to test the wastewater multiple times a week.
“Dominion agrees to provide an additional enhanced treatment step, thus assuring the final effluent concentrations will be considerably lower than required by the [existing] permit,” the county’s statement said.
Dominion will have to set up a water-treatment facility at the power plant to treat the water before it is released into Quantico Creek.
“The coal ash water … will be significantly cleaner than what state and federal [laws] require,” Principi said. “In order to reach enhanced results, Dominion is going to have to do more. I think, by definition, the solution is going to cost more money.”
Dominion has also pledged to work more collaboratively with the county on the second part of the coal-ash cleanup process – the solid-waste disposal permit the utility must receive in order to bury the dewatered coal ash on site.
Last spring, the EPA called for the closure of ash ponds across the country in the wake of two major ash spills in Tennessee and North Carolina. Ash ponds were used across the country to store the ash left over from burning coal to produce electricity.
In a statement, Dominion said Prince William officials “helped us create a plan that reflects Dominion’s and the county’s shared committment to maintain the quality of these two waterways.”
“Dominion will always be committed to keeping Quantico Creek and the Potomac safe for fishing, boating, swimming and all the activities we Virginians love to do. We look forward to moving ahead with this important environmental project,” Pam Faggert, Dominion’s chief environmental officer, said in utility’s statement.
Dominion’s coal-ash dewatering permit continues to face court challenges from the Potomac Riverkeeper Network and the state of Maryland.
In response to news about Prince William County’s settlement Tuesday, Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks vowed his organization would continue to fight Dominion’s permit in court.
“DEQ’s weakness compels us to fight for a strong, enforceable permit that requires Dominion to treat its toxic coal ash waste with the best available technology,” Naujoks said in a statement. “That means removing enough arsenic and toxic metals to protect the river ecology and public health.”