Dominion Virginia Power is now allowed to release toxic chemicals at triple the levels considered harmful to aquatic health in the James River, according to a state-approved permit for the corporation’s Bremo Power Station in Fluvanna.
According to an NBC12 review of the permit, Dominion is approved to begin releasing quantities of arsenic and hexavalent chromium exceeding Virginia’s chronic pollution standards. Freshwater fish and aquatic life begin to die a few days after the limits are surpassed.
“For a period of time, the river would be out of compliance with the state’s own water quality standards,” said Pat Calvert, upper riverkeeper for the James River Association. “Our concern is that human life and aquatic life are not protected by the discharges that would be coming out of the end of the pipe.”
Virginia allows maximum arsenic concentrations of 150 micrograms per liter in freshwater under the chronic pollution standards. The Dominion permit allows 530 micrograms per liter in the James River.
Hexavalent chromium, a chemical made famous by the Julia Roberts film, "Erin Brockovich," is allowed at 11 micrograms per liter in Virginia’s freshwater environments. The permit issued to Dominion sets a maximum limit of 34 micrograms per liter.
The pollutants would be found in water drained from the Fluvanna plant’s coal ash ponds, where by-products of burning coal have been dumped for decades.
The EPA now requires ponds across the country to be drained, in order to protect drinking water and the surrounding environment.
The section of the James River where the Bremo wastewater will be released is not used for drinking water. However, homes in the surrounding area use drinking water wells near the power station.
"We are cleaning the water just like a municipality would treat wastewater on site," said David Botkins, a spokesperson for Dominion. "Part of the permit criteria is that nothing being discharged will be harmful in any way, shape or form to aquatic life, human life, or anything else."
But the James River Association disputes the claim. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a notice of intent to challenge the permit, even though it is not opposed by the EPA, and was approved by Virginia’s State Water Control Board.
"The State Water Control Board clearly broke the law in issuing this permit," said Brad McLane, senior attorney with the SELC. “The DEQ permit sets lax standards that fail to protect the James.”
Virginia’s DEQ explains regulators approved the toxic concentrations near the plant because of a “mixing zone” within the James River.
For 2,000 ft., measuring the length of more than six ½ football fields, the river itself is used to dilute the toxic chemicals. State officials said concentrations will then be safe outside of the mixing zone.
“The mixing zone concept is well-established as a permitting tool, and has been used in Virginia for decades,” DEQ spokesperson Bill Hayden said in an email response. “It meets federal and state requirements, and it is specifically designed to ensure the protection of people’s health and the health of the creatures in the river.”
Conservationists argue the mixing zone violates the federal Clean Water Act, which prevents the degradation of high quality waterways. Opponents of the permit contend part of the river is being sacrificed, albeit a distance 26 times smaller than originally planned.
“(The mixing zone) was reduced from about 10 miles," Calvert said. "That’s a great improvement, but it should be zero."
Dominion will post the results of water quality testing on its website for the public. Representatives for the corporation said the water treatment process will involve a multi-stage filtering system, with groundwater also monitored.
"We are going to beat and exceed the criteria of the permits that DEQ has in place," Botkins said. "In fact, our mobile treatment facilities on site that will be cleaning the water will do it better than what the permit levels are."
Critics contend power companies are already forced to meet more stringent standards for coal ash wastewater disposal in neighboring North Carolina. In their view, the technology exists to make a James River mixing zone unnecessary.
"We believe it can be reduced to zero, what comes out of the end of the pipe," said Calvert. "The technology is there to fix it. It’s affordable, achievable, proven technology. They’re supposed to be using best available technology, and we’re asking the state require that."
Contrary to common belief, coal ash itself is not being released into the river. Only the water that mixed with the coal ash will be released from Dominion’s 11 ponds at four power stations.
The corporation’s Chesterfield Power Station along the James River now has a conditional use permit to dispose of its coal ash wastewater, similar to the process in Fluvanna.
During a weekend protest at the State Capitol, activists demanded the coal ash wastewater be released without pollutants. Virginia does not require such a high bar to be met, and Dominion said the demand is not feasible.
"I would just say that is not the way industrial wastewater discharge is handled, it’s just not," Botkins said.
The permit calls for 350 million gallons of water to be released from the Fluvanna power station. The process of closing all Dominion ponds will take 3-4 years to complete.
"This is a regulation from the federal government, we have to do it," Botkins said. "We have to close these coal ash ponds."
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