HURRICANES AND COAL ASH DON’T MIX
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]