Daily Press (Sunday) - - Opinion -

Like many Vir­gini­ans, I watched the shift­ing path of Hur­ri­cane Florence with al­ter­nat­ing hor­ror and re­lief. At the end of the day, we were spared the worst of this storm’s wrath; our neigh­bors to the south weren’t as lucky.

Ex­ac­er­bat­ing an al­ready wide­spread cri­sis across east­ern North Carolina was the in­un­da­tion of mul­ti­ple Duke En­ergy coal ash stor­age sites by flood­wa­ters, as rivers swollen by record rains jumped their banks and car­ried away yet un­told amounts of the toxic black sludge at power plants near Wilm­ing­ton and Golds­boro.

Early es­ti­mates in­di­cated that at least an Olympic-size swim­ming pool’s worth of coal ash was re­leased at the Wilm­ing­ton power plant, mak­ing its way into a nearby cool­ing pond and the Cape Fear River.

Sadly, these spills marked the sec­ond time in just the past four years that Duke En­ergy sites have con­tam­i­nated rivers in the Tar Heel State with coal ash. Though not as wide­spread as the 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River, which made its way into Vir­ginia, these spills were also fully pre­ventable.

Law­mak­ers in Vir­ginia should take no­tice: the same ex­act set of cir­cum­stances ex­ists in the com­mon­wealth that led to the en­vi­ron­men­tal con­tam­i­na­tion in North Carolina — old coal ash pits sited on the banks of ma­jor wa­ter­ways.

Had Florence hit Vir­ginia with the same in­ten­sity, we’d be in the mid­dle of a mas­sive coal ash clean- up. Do­min­ion En­ergy is cur­rently stor­ing ap­prox­i­mately 30 mil­lion tons of coal ash be­tween four dif­fer­ent power plant sites, all within the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay water­shed: Bremo Power Sta­tion in Flu­vanna County and Ch­ester­field Power Sta­tion in Ch­ester, both on the James River; Pos­sum Point Power Sta­tion in Dum­fries, sited on Quan­tico Creek, a large tribu­tary to the Po­tomac River; and Ch­e­sa­peake En­ergy Cen­ter on the El­iz­a­beth River in Hamp­ton Roads.

The ash is also stored mostly in hold­ing pits that pre­date mod­ern en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions.

One such site dates back to the 1930s; oth­ers were built in the1950s, mean­ing in Vir­ginia we store much of our house­hold garbage more safely than coal ash, even though it con­tains high lev­els of heavy met­als and known car­cino­gens like ar­senic, mer­cury, chromium and lead.

Law­mak­ers in 2017 wisely slowed down Do­min­ion’s plans to keep this waste on site in per­pe­tu­ity by bury­ing it in place when they im­ple­mented a mora­to­rium on fi­nal clo­sure of these fa­cil­i­ties, which was ex­tended dur­ing the 2018 Gen­eral As­sem­bly un­til July 2019.

Over the past two years, we’ve learned more about the mag­ni­tude of the prob­lem due to leg­is­la­tion that passed in­struct­ing Do­min­ion to per­form a full-scale as­sess­ment of its coal ash stor­age sites. Just re­cently, Do­min­ion re­leased the re­sults of a re­quest-for-pro­posal process that found nearly half of its ex­ist­ing coal ash is suitable for re­cy­cling — a study that was also or­dered by law­mak­ers.

The up­com­ing leg­isla­tive ses­sion is where the rub­ber needs to meet the road on coal ash. What hap­pened in North Carolina should have sent de­ci­sion-mak­ers in Vir- ginia a clear mes­sage that coal ash sim­ply can’t be stored safely next to large bod­ies of wa­ter. The only way we can truly ad­dress this prob­lem is by trans­fer­ring the ash to lined, mod­ern land­fills or re­cy­cling it into us­able build­ing prod­ucts. There is al­ready mar­ket de­mand for coal ash, so much so that it’s ac­tu­ally im­ported into Vir­ginia from over­seas for use in mak­ing con­crete. Mov­ing for­ward with ei­ther op­tion or a hy­brid ap­proach is the only way we can truly ad­dress what is, at the end of the day, one of our state’s big­gest en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems.

Ex­treme weather events are get­ting worse and more fre­quent. We can’t put this work off any longer – law­mak­ers must act in 2019. Fran­cis is deputy direc­tor of the Vir­ginia League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers. Send email to lfran­[email protected]

Lee fran­cis

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