Power and Water: Clean Virginia, Part 3

Jun 11, 2015

With rare exceptions, we are all dependent on power plants to generate electricity for all facets of American life -- plants owned and operated by large companies such as Duke Energy Corporation and Dominion Virginia Power. But what effect does that dependency have on the world around us?  And what is being done to prevent contamination of the resources we need to survive? In Part 3 of our series "Clean Virginia," WMRA’s Kara Lofton reports.

In May, Duke Energy Corporation pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. The company was investigated after a massive North Carolina coal ash spill into the Dan River in February of 2014 and now faces $102 million dollars in fines.

While the Duke spill doesn’t directly affect central and western Virginia, the law Duke violated in North Carolina, the Clean Water Act, most definitely does.

The Clean Water Act was originally passed in 1972. Although it has been amended several times since then, the Clean Water Act is still the primary federal law governing water pollution in the United States.

Lana Pettus is one of the senior Justice Department lawyers who brought the criminal charges against Duke in the 2015 case. Pettus is a Harrisonburg native and has been working on a variety of environmental law cases for the Justice Department since she first started working there in 2004.

Pettus says the problem with coal ash is that it contains a plethora of toxic heavy metals that if leaked into local water sources can contaminate the drinking water for miles downstream.

LANA PETTUS: The crux of the charges here in the Duke case was once you’ve discovered a seep or once a seep occurs, what you do when you find it. So in this case, those seeps had been allowed to flow into the channels that carry them into the river. So if they had come up with some other solution so that the water didn’t reach the river, then there would have been no Clean Water Act violation because there has to be an actual discharge of a pollutant to a water of the United States for there to be a violation.

Pettus said the seeps are naturally occurring in unlined coal ash ponds. Water contamination often depends on the geographic location of the pits themselves and the soil quality of the land around the power plant. Ponds dug in clay-heavy soil don’t leak as much as ones in more porous soil. 

Last month, I visited two power plants in central Virginia. One was in Bremo Bluff, between Charlottesville and Richmond and is the site of Virginia’s oldest coal fired power plant. In 2014, the Bremo plant was converted to natural gas. The other plant, in Chesterfield County outside of Richmond, is the largest fossil-fueled power station in Virginia.

Although the Bremo Bluff plant has been converted to natural gas, at least one coal ash pits remains. From the top of the plant, one can see how close the pond, which is simply an open pit of coal ash mixed with water, is to the James River.

When these pits aren’t lined, it is possible for toxic waste containing arsenic, mercury and lead, and over a dozen other heavy metals to leak into the ground water and surrounding rivers at great risk to human health. So I asked Dominion media relations rep Dan Genest about the pits.

LOFTON: Does Dominion line their ash ponds?

DAN GENEST: Some of them are, some of them aren’t depending on when they were built

LOFTON: Are the ones here lined? Is the one at Bremo Bluff lined?

GENEST: Bremo’s are not lined.

And neither are the ones at Chesterfield, but the ponds at both locations are being closed entirely as the result of a new set of requirements passed in 2015 by the Environmental Protection Agency. The regulations were passed, in part, because of the massive 2014 spill from Duke.

Dominion has three years to close all their ash ponds and switch them to a dry ash landfill, a process they have already started.

Moving from a wet pond to a dry landfill should prevent the kind of massive water contamination seen in North Carolina last year.

Forty-five years ago, national waterways were so polluted that if you fell into the Potomac you’d need to get a tetanus shot. But that isn’t the case anymore. The laws, such as the Clean Water Act and the 2015 Coal Residuals Regulations are working. It’s just the work isn’t done yet. As the Duke spill has so painfully illustrated, we have a long way to go until our waterways truly are clean and the laws governing major sources of pollution are well followed.