|A Richmond police officer watches as students stage a rally outside the Department of Environmental Quality as environmental activists stage a sit-in at the headquarters in Richmond, Va., Monday, March 7, 2016. The activists demanded the agency repeal permits related to releasing coal ash wastewater into the state's rivers. (James H. Wallace/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT|
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — More stringent water treatment and fish testing will be required along the James River under a settlement reached by Dominion Virginia Power and the James River Association on the release of coal ash wastewater.
The announcement Wednesday ends the association's legal challenge of a state permit allowing the so-called dewatering of coal ash impoundments at Bremo Power Station in Fluvanna County. Water is drained from the ponds before the power company caps the potentially toxic remnants of coal-fired power generation.
But a separate challenge will move forward of the dewatering plan for Dominion's Possum Point power plant in northern Virginia. The Potomac Riverkeeper Network said the state permit for discharges into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River is inadequate to protect the waterways.
Late Tuesday, Prince William County announced it had reached settlement with Dominion and would not challenge the Possum Point permit.
The settlement governing the Bremo discharges followed weeks of debate, protests and arrests over the discharge of millions of gallons of coal ash wastewater into state waterways. Much of the anger has been directed at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which issued the permits.
The DEQ said in a statement it was pleased Dominion will voluntarily "go beyond federal and state regulatory requirements to further enhance water quality protections at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations." It defended the permits, saying they protect water quality and human and aquatic health.
Bill Street, chief executive officer of the James River Association, said the enhanced water treatments for Bremo are aimed at maintaining the James' water quality. The fish testing will involve tissue sampling conducted over the next two years to see if any toxins are collecting in the fish as a result of the discharges.
"Our goal was to ensure that discharges into the James River received the best treatment possible, and I think that this settlement achieves that," Street said in an interview.
In a statement, Dominion said the treatment plan "reflects the commitment of both our organizations to maintain the quality of the James River."
Dominion is moving away from coal to primarily natural gas to meet new federal standards designed to limit the discharges of carbon dioxide, the leading cause of global warming. Decades of coal burning has left Dominion with 11 impoundments of coal ash, some covered with nearly 10 feet of water.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued rules one year ago calling for the closure of dormant coal ash ponds. Dewatering is a first step in Dominion's $500 million plan before it covers the coal ash with a high-density plastic cap.
While the EPA has deemed coal ash to be nonhazardous, it contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic and selenium, among others.
The Bremo settlement will not end debate over Dominion's decision to cap-in-place coal ash rather than empty the impoundments and move the waste from water sources.
"We are open to considering any solution that stops groundwater pollution and coal ash constituents from reaching waterways," said Gregory Buppert, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. The SELC represents the James River and Potomac river associations.
During a briefing this week with reporters, Dominion said it would cost an additional $3 billion to dredge out the coal ash and ship it elsewhere. It would require 1.6 million truckloads to empty the impoundments, the company said.
"When you look at the overall environmental impact, it's questionable if there's a gain there of putting that many trucks out on the roadway with those materials," said Jason Williams, Dominion manager for water, waste and remediation.