Millions of tons of ash stored at a former coal-fired power plant in the city will become increasingly vulnerable to flooding and other coastal risks, according to a report compiled for an environmental group that is seeking to have the ash moved.
The ash, buried as much as 6 feet below mean sea level, is “highly vulnerable to coastal hazards, including flooding, storm surge, erosion and sea level rise,” says the report from researchers at Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. “Further, with the changing climate in the coming decades, these hazards are only expected to worsen” at the Chesapeake Energy Center site.
The report was commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which released it Monday. The Charlottesville-based center is representing the Sierra Club in a federal lawsuit against Dominion Virginia Power. The groups want the utility to be ordered to remove the ash to an inland site. A Richmond judge presided over a trial in June and has yet to rule.
The ash is the residue of more than 60 years of coal-burning at the site, a peninsula along the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. The last of the coal boilers there shut down in 2014.
The Sierra Club’s legal case is centered on its contention that arsenic and other toxic substances are leaching from the ash into groundwater and then into the river – a violation, it contends, of the federal Clean Water Act. Dominion has said the claim is without merit.
During the trial, an official of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality testified that state officials hadn’t evaluated the effect of sea level rise in assessing Dominion’s proposal to cap and permanently keep most of the ash on site.
“This report clearly spells out those climate change risks,” said Seth Heald, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, in a prepared statement. “It’s more imperative than ever that Dominion excavate the site.”
Dominion has estimated that there are about 3.3 million tons of ash stored at the site, about two-thirds of it in unlined pits. Most of the remainder is in a lined landfill built above a portion of the old pits.
The Western Carolina researchers focused on the 2.1 million tons in the unlined pits and said that as sea levels continue to rise, saltwater will intrude and push fresh groundwater higher. As that occurs, they said, “increasingly more coal ash near the surface will interact with groundwater” and more contaminants will be released into it.
They predicted that after roughly 1.5 meters of sea level rise, the site will become an island. Some climate researchers have said that rate of sea level rise is possible within the next century.
Without steps to mitigate risks, the researchers said, “the steep edges of the ash landfill could experience slope instability issues (i.e., undercutting, collapse) as erosion on the coastline progresses.” The report didn’t address whether that would pose any danger to public safety. But Robert Young, the director of the Western Carolina program, said in a phone interview, “It’s hard for me to imagine that a direct structural failure of that site would place someone’s life at risk.”
Young said the likely greater risk would be a “rapid, immediate degradation” of water quality around the site if more ash is suddenly exposed to the elements.
This is the first time the Western Carolina researchers have studied a coal-ash site, Young said, noting that the program has focused on assessing the vulnerability of infrastructure at coastal national parks, including Assateague Island National Seashore and the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia.
At the Chesapeake site, he said, the researchers treated the ash as infrastructure and concluded that the hazards to it from water on three sides “are only going to get worse, not better.”
“The question is: How fast is it going to get worse?” Young said. “Is it going to get worse at an accelerating rate or at a linear rate?”
Robert Richardson, a Dominion spokesman, said in an email that engineers have been working to improve the shoreline around the site “to protect against rising waters and a 500-year flood.” He said the project is scheduled to be completed in 2018.
Richardson said that once the landfill is closed, its protective cover would be inspected regularly, including after storms, to ensure its integrity.
During the June trial, the cost of removing the ash was estimated at $221 million by a Sierra Club witness and $477 million by an excavation contractor who has worked for Dominion.
“Moving the ash offsite would result in notably greater impacts associated with transportation and related safety concerns, air emissions, and significant additional costs for our customers,” Richardson said. “Issues with removing all ash on-site would mean hundreds of thousands of trucks in the area for more than a decade.”
Young said that in the long run, however, it could cost Dominion less to remove the ash than to try to shield it: “That’s definitely worth thinking about.”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot
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