If state lawmakers do nothing, Dominion Energy will move ahead with plans to permanently bury 4 million tons of coal ash in southeastern Prince William County this May.
But with the General Assembly’s new session rapidly approaching, the county’s new legislative delegation is crafting a whole host of proposals designed to avoid that outcome at the Possum Point Power Station outside Dumfries, and perhaps even the three other sites around the state where the utility is storing tons of the waste material.
Ahead of the two-month legislative session starting Jan. 10, three Prince William lawmakers said they plan to introduce bills targeting Dominion’s coal ash plans: state Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th District, and Dels.-elect Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-2nd District, and Lee Carter, D-50th District.
While each legislator’s plan differs slightly on the details, the trio is united in the goal of blocking Dominion’s plans to bury the ash at the site just off Quantico Creek, where environmentalists and neighbors believe toxic heavy metals from the ash have already polluted the area’s groundwater, despite the utility’s assurances to the contrary.
The politically influential company will likely prove a formidable adversary in any coal ash debate, but the Democrats are hoping that the party’s sweeping November victories in the House of Delegates will help them pass some sort of legislation on the issue.
“I just don’t think burying it in the ground and crossing our fingers for the next thousand years is the way to go,” Surovell said in an interview.
Surovell has long opposed Dominion’s proposal to drain five “ash ponds” at Possum Point and consolidate the waste material into one clay-lined pit, a process known as “cap in place,” prompting him to pass legislation delaying those plans through May in the first place.
Surovell’s bill also required Dominion to complete a study of alternatives to the cap in place plan, like moving the ash to a new landfill or recycling it. The utility presented the results of that study to lawmakers last month, and now Surovell and his newly elected colleagues are ready to build off its conclusions with legislation.
“We have had general conversations with various elected officials on this issue...but it would be premature to speculate on specific legislation,” Dominion spokesman David Botkins wrote in an email. “The session doesn’t convene until Jan. 10, the filing deadline for bills isn’t until Jan. 19, and anything filed is subject to change during the legislative process. The State Water Commission has been fully briefed on the study and everyone knows the options, and price tags, associated with each.”
All three lawmakers are still working out the details of their bills and rounding up support — and Surovell points out that his legislation last year “went through about nine lives before it finally passed” — but the legislators are adamant that they hope their proposals force Dominion to pursue plans to recycle the ash. The company’s report showed that such an option was feasible, as the ash could be used in construction materials like concrete, but also substantially more expensive than burying it in place. Dominion’s consultants even suspect that there may not be much demand for ash among companies in the region, given North Carolina’s own supply of coal ash.
But environmentalists with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network fiercely disputed those findings, and Surovell and Carter are designing bills specifically revolving around recycling.
“A lot of companies around here have already shown interest in taking Possum Point’s coal ash and turning it into things like paving bricks,” Surovell said. “If we recycle the ash, we can create jobs and protect the environment.”
That’s why Surovell, who represents the area in Richmond, plans to introduce a package of legislation aimed at incentivizing the company to pursue recycling options. He isn’t sure yet how he might word the bill, suggesting it could somehow make the cap in place option “more expensive” or even bar companies from burying the ash entirely, but he’s certain that recycling is the best option for all involved.
Though his district covers parts of western Prince William, Carter feels about the same. He said he’s drafting a bill that would make utilities like Dominion prove that recycling is somehow implausible before moving ahead with other closure plans.
“If you’re just looking at the best way to dispose of this, everyone agrees recycling is best,” Carter said. “So they should have to prove that other options are better, and not just the cheapest. We need to make recycling the default. They should prove recycling is not the best option.”
Foy’s bill will target Possum Point more specifically, as the power station sits in the district she’ll serve when she officially takes over for retiring Republican Del. Mark Dudenhefer. Of all the possible coal ash legislation, hers might put the starkest constraint on Dominion — she wants to bar the company from pursuing any cap in place plan at the site.
“We’re not telling them what to do; we’re telling them what not to do,” Foy said.
Foy’s legislation requires that Dominion close its Possum Point ash ponds by July 1, 2022, but it leaves open the possibility that the company could dig up all of its ash and move it to an off-site landfill where it wouldn’t be so close to waterways like the Potomac River. Known as “clean closure,” Dominion’s alternatives study disparaged the option as costly and disruptive to the area’s neighbors, as it would require thousands of trips by truck, train or barge to remove the ash.
Foy has already convinced eight other lawmakers to join with her and co-sponsor the legislation, including two other new Prince William legislators: Dels. Elizabeth Guzman, D-31st District, and Danica Roem, D-13th District.
“This coal ash is just next door to my district...and we shouldn’t be losing lives because of costs to this company,” Guzman said.
Rate freeze split?
But one facet of the coal ash debate divides the Prince William delegation a bit more sharply: the fate of the Dominion rate freeze.
The General Assembly acted in 2015 to bar regulators with the State Corporation Commission from adjusting Dominion’s electric rates through 2023, after the company argued that the Obama administration’s “Clean Power Plan” would hurt its bottom line and force it to raise prices on customers. But as the Trump administration prepares to dismantle that policy, which is aimed at forcing the closure of coal-fired power plants, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have increasingly suggested that the freeze may no longer be necessary.
Roem has even joined with other House Democrats to introduce legislation ending the freeze, blasting the company for collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in excess earnings that it could have been refunding to customers the last few years.
Surovell suspects that a possible compromise might be to leave the rate freeze in place, so long as Dominion is somehow directed to put any excess revenue toward cleaning up coal ash, perhaps driving down the costs of recycling it or removing it. Should the rate freeze end, regulators with the SCC would decide how the company uses that money.
“My concern with the SCC is that their solution to everything seems to be whatever’s cheapest,” Surovell said. “If we leave it up to them 100 percent, they will tell us it ought to be buried...Anything we can do to get the cost down, we need to explore.”
But Roem questions whether the General Assembly would indeed be able to “tell Dominion how to spend its money.” She remains open to finding “common ground” on the issue with both Surovell and the utility, but she would much rather see Dominion “back under the auditing microscope of the SCC.”
“I intend to promote the bill as it is,” Roem said. “But the bottom line is returning excess profits to ratepayers and getting rid of the coal ash somehow.”
Yet all of these various policy proposals, from recycling to the rate freeze, will need to survive the scrutiny of Democratic Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and his incoming administration. During the campaign, Northam stressed that he would wait to see the results of the analysis ordered by Surovell’s bill before taking a position on coal ash, and he isn’t tipping his hand just yet.
“It’s certainly something that we’re looking at,” Northam said in an interview in Dale City. “We need to take care of the coal ash responsibly and make sure it’s not leaking into our water systems in Virginia. So it’s something we’re going to work with the legislature on, and we’ll do what’s in the best interest of Virginia.”