**Michael Town was guest speaker at our PCDC meeting on March 19, 2017 **
By Michael Town
Richmond Times-Dispatch Mar 18, 2017
Clean water is a right. It’s necessary for life as we know it.
Clean water is also necessary for quality of life. Each year, countless Virginians and tourists alike take advantage of the recreational angling, swimming and boating opportunities that the Chesapeake Bay and our scenic waterways provide.
Unfortunately, our rivers and drinking water are threatened throughout Virginia, from the far southwest to the D.C. suburbs. Protecting these resources shouldn’t be a partisan fight, and we were fortunate at the General Assembly this year to see broad support from both sides of the aisle to push forward strong water quality safeguards while beating back legislation that would have put clean water at risk across the commonwealth.
One of our most high-profile fights this year was over a bill — sponsored by Sens. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) and Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) and now headed to the governor — that requires Dominion Power to complete full assessments of all of its coal ash storage facilities and outline different options for safe, long-term closure.
Responsible management of these sites is critical. Coal ash is laden with harmful, heavy metals like lead, arsenic and hexavalent chromium. Following large-scale environmental calamities in Tennessee and just across the border in North Carolina where coal ash holding ponds failed, polluting rivers with toxic sludge, the Environmental Protection Agency required utilities to close existing storage ponds and convert to clean, dry storage in landfills at facilities that still burn coal.
Under the reporting guidelines of Senate Bill 1398, Dominion Power will have to identify any ongoing pollution issues, as well as corrective action, and determine whether these sites are vulnerable to extreme weather or erosion. The utility will also have to evaluate responsible, clean closure of these sites by excavating and removing coal ash waste to a lined landfill, and to also look into the feasibility of recycling coal ash into concrete, which can then be used in road construction or in manufacturing building products.
Regulators, lawmakers and citizens will be armed with more information on the dangers coal ash impoundments pose to public health and the environment. This makes it harder for Dominion to do the bare minimum while closing these sites, and legislators have given the sign that they are open to the possibility of revisiting the issue during the 2018 General Assembly once the red flags emerge.
While the outcome is a step in the right direction, we believe it contains one serious flaw.
The original bill cleared the state Senate on an incredible 29-11 margin. The Richmond delegation demonstrated the strong bipartisan support behind this effort with Senate Democrats Jennifer McClellan and Rosalyn Dance voting alongside Republicans Glen Sturtevant, Siobhan Dunnavant and Chase. But before it passed the House of Delegates unanimously, the committee reviewing the legislation removed a vital provision from the bill that would require the state Department of Environmental Quality to only make permit decisions after receiving this information. As the legislation now stands, Dominion could get its permits before giving the state pertinent information about the pollution problems at the coal ash sites.
With the deadline fast approaching for gubernatorial vetoes and amendments, Governor McAuliffe has the chance to address this shortcoming and we expect he will act. State lawmakers need to follow suit when they reconvene in April. Without firm provisions putting the horse before the cart, it’s wholly possible Dominion could still try to pursue Band-Aid solutions at its coal ash sites, a move that would defy the spirit of this bill. Our state agencies need to be able make the right call the first time during the permitting process, not after our clean water has already been compromised.
For too long, under the guise of reliable electricity, Dominion Power has gotten a free pass to pollute in the commonwealth. This General Assembly proved that state lawmakers are sick and tired of it. By weighing in on coal ash closure, McAuliffe has the chance to hold Dominion accountable and also to stand with countless Virginians who depend on clean water, and legislators have the chance to say enough is enough.
If Dominion permanently closes coal ash sites before disclosing and fixing existing pollution issues, or ensuring the sites are at all suited for long-term closure in the face of extreme weather, they are essentially playing Russian roulette with our clean water resources.
We have an opportunity to responsibly address a truly toxic problem in Virginia. House lawmakers can either stand alongside their constituents or with the corporation responsible for creating the mess in the first place.
Michael Town is executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.