RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Gov. Terry McAuliffe sent a coal ash cleanup bill back to the General Assembly on Wednesday with amendments that would delay Dominion Virginia Power's plans to close its ponds until the utility provides more information about possible contamination and closure alternatives.
In a move hailed by environmental groups, the governor proposed a moratorium until 2018 on the issuance of the permits the utility needs to close the ponds. The same bill would impose a December 2017 deadline for Dominion to report on any water pollution and evaluate options for recycling ash as it closes 11 ponds at four power stations.
"My hope is that this additional process will increase the public's confidence in the path that Virginia ultimately takes" in closing the ponds, McAuliffe said in a statement, citing "tremendous public concern and outreach" on the issue.
Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson said the company will start immediately on the assessments and looks forward to sharing the results.
The General Assembly, which will reconvene next month, still must approve the amended measure.
Coal ash is the heavy metal-laden waste left over after the fossil fuel is burned for power generation. For decades, it's been stored in landfills and sometimes in ponds to keep it from blowing away. Ponds in other places have tainted water supplies. Dominion says its ponds are safe and not leaking.
A catastrophic 2008 spill in Tennessee drew national attention to the issue. Then, in 2014, a pipe ruptured at a Duke Energy plant, polluting North Carolina's Dan River with miles of gray sludge.
In Virginia, Dominion has been moving forward with plans to close 11 ponds to comply with Environmental Protect Agency regulations by treating and releasing the water, consolidating some ponds and capping the tops of the ones that will remain. Environmentalists say that doesn't go far enough to protect water quality.
Each assessment required by the bill must identify and describe any ground or surface water pollution stemming from the pond and evaluate how to resolve it. Dominion must also evaluate the "clean closure" of each unit, either through recycling of the coal ash or through the excavation and removal of the ash to a dry, lined landfill.
The measure's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, was pleased with the amendment. His measure initially required the assessments be done before permits could be issued, though that provision was stripped from the version that passed.
"It's important that we fix this problem once and not have to go back and do it again," he said.
Environmental groups also praised the governor's decision.
"Today, Governor McAuliffe stood up for the people of the Commonwealth by ensuring cleaner water, but the General Assembly still has to act. Without this amendment, Virginians could have to deal with the fallout from band-aid solutions to a very real, very dangerous environmental threat," said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
The governor's amendments say the Department of Environmental Quality can't issue permits until May 1, 2018, or the effective date of any legislation adopted during next year's legislative session dealing, whichever occurs later.
Surovell said the changes mean lawmakers will be able to have a fair discussion next year about how best to deal with the ponds.
"It's been very hard to have a debate on this because Dominion has had a monopoly on the information," he said.