Federal judge: Dominion’s coal ash in Chesapeake violates Clean Water Act

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — A federal judge ruled Thursday that Dominion Virginia Power has violated the Clean Water Act by letting more than 3 million tons of coal ash piled along the Elizabeth River.

Until 2014, Dominion Virginia Power used coal to provide electricity at the Chesapeake Energy Center. At the site, Dominion both burned the coal and stored the ashes.

Coal ash is an umbrella term. It includes bottom ash, which settles in boilers; fly ash, a powdery material captured in exhaust stacks; and synthetic gypsum, a byproduct of smokestack “scrubbing.” The EPA stressed that this waste, with heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead, must be properly managed to avoid risks to human health.

The Sierra Club filed the lawsuit against Dominion in 2015. It argued that arsenic and other substances are leaching from the ash into groundwater and then into the Elizabeth River.

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Dominion experts testified that arsenic-contaminated groundwater doesn’t reach the river, but Judge James A. Gibney, Jr. said that’s not true.

The judge explained, “Dominion created those piles specifically for coal ash and they channeled the pollutants away from the old power plant and directly into the groundwater.”

Dominion wanted to keep ash on site. The agency said the Sierra Club’s claims were unfounded and that a corrective action plan has resulted in “generally stable or declining” arsenic levels in groundwater.

“We want to make sure that people understand that we monitor groundwater and surface water at the site regularly,” Dominion Spokesperson Bonita Harris told 10 On Your Side. “There is no evidence of offsite contamination.”

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But Judge Gibney ruled that the process of “letting nature take its course” is a “completely ineffective ‘solution,'” which “may never get rid of the arsenic in the groundwater,” the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) said Thursday.

The judge is not requiring Dominion to dig up the unlined coal ash pits at the now-closed energy center. Instead, the coal ash will stay put, while Dominion has been ordered to do more testing. Judge Gibney asked that both sides submit briefs outlining “a detailed remedial plan” to correct the issue.

“We’re pleased the court agreed Dominion is breaking the law because its coal ash is polluting the Elizabeth River, but we are disappointed the court did not order a full cleanup,” said Deborah Murray, one of the SELC attorneys who represented the Sierra Club.

This is the first time a federal judge has ruled following a full trial that a utility broke the law because of the way it stores coal ash.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.