|A giant coal ash pile at Gavin coal fired power plant
Power companies could soon have more flexibility in how they handle the ash that remains from a legacy of burning coal for power, but not if environmental groups have any say in the matter. Several facilities located near Chesapeake Bay rivers are in the process of closing pits where coal ash and water have comingled for decades amid changing regulations at the federal and state level.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in July finalized its first batch of significant changes to standards imposed in 2015 by the Obama administration that required companies to begin closing certain inactive coal ash storage facilities. The rollback of those rules will take effect at the end of August, though they are likely to face legal challenges.
This summer’s revisions incorporate “alternative performance standards” that the EPA or a state could use to approve a coal ash permit, such as those required to release ash-tainted water into nearby waterways.
The agency also raised allowable levels of contaminants in groundwater. Boron, an element that is considered a leading indicator of the presence of other contaminants, was removed from the list.
|Coal ash settling pond at Gavin
“With this rule, EPA continues its pattern of rolling back environmental protections,” said Lisa Feldt, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s vice president for environmental protection and restoration, in a statement. “There are many documented cases where groundwater has been contaminated by coal ash storage facilities, damaging waterways and potentially, drinking water.”I'd love to see coal fired power plants ended of ever, in due time. They're dirty, even though most of the impact can be contained to a relatively large site. Better to replace them with natural gas, and best to replace them with nuclear power. In the meantime do a good, but economical job of keeping the ones we need running.
Coal ash storage has been the subject of heated debate in Virginia, both at public meetings about environmental permits and in the General Assembly. Legislators passed a bill this year that requires companies with coal ash pits in the Chesapeake watershed to take another step toward recycling their contents rather than allowing the ash to be permanently stored in place.
Though the bill stops short of requiring recycling, it does force companies such as Dominion Energy, which maintains nearly a dozen coal ash pits in the state, to seek proposals from recycling contractors who integrate the ash into concrete and construction materials. The companies must compile the proposed costs in a report for lawmakers to consider by the end of the year.
The measure also extended until July 1, 2019, a prohibition on new state permits that would allow facilities to close coal ash pits by permanently storing their contents in place. Pits where the removal process is under way or completed, however, may finish the closure process.
Dominion officials say they support the measure and will work with legislators to further investigate the possibility of recycling long-stored coal ash from the sites. The company’s own report at the end of 2017 concluded that recycling would be too expensive at most of the sites in the Bay watershed. It favored an option, opposed by environmentalists, to store millions of tons of coal ash in mostly unlined pits, many of them located next to the Potomac and James rivers.