WASHINGTON -- Three conservation groups accused Dominion Virginia Power Wednesday of illegally discharging coal ash waste into the Potomac River.
Five coal ash ponds at Dominion’s Possum Point power plant, 30 miles south of Washington, "have been illegally leaking toxic pollutants for decades into groundwater and two popular waterways,” the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing Potomac Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, said in a statement. The groups made the allegation in a notice filed Wednesday with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and with the utility.
The groups said they are prepared to sue Dominion if the pollution is not addressed. They alleged the state DEQ has been aware of the problem, but has been unresponsive.
"We know that both Dominion and the state agency have been aware that the active coal ash ponds on this site have been contaminating groundwater for a while, we know they've been aware of it for 10 years and probably several decades," Greg Buppert of the Southern Environmental Law Center told The Huffington Post. "We're not aware of any steps by Dominion or the DEQ to fix or clean up this problem."
Buppert called the groups' action against Dominion "really the first step in tackling the coal ash pollution problem in Virginia."
"What we hope is that the state agency will enforce and oversee a thorough cleanup of the site," Buppert added.
Neither Dominion nor the DEQ responded to The Huffington Post's requests for comment.
Two of the five coal ash disposal ponds at the Possum Point plant remain active, the environmental groups said. They said that the ponds have been releasing coal ash pollutants like arsenic and cadmium into Quantico Creek near where it empties into the Potomac River, and that state inspectors consistently noted the problem on visits.
Meanwhile, the three unused coal ash ponds have been abandoned without monitoring for almost 50 years, the conservation groups said. Dominion only informed the state of the ponds' existence after a major coal ash spill in North Carolina earlier this year, the statement said.
Coal ash, left over from the process of burning coal to create electricity, is often mixed with water and left in ponds. Arsenic, mercury, and lead are among the toxic elements in the slurry. When the coal ash ponds are unlined -- as the three unused Dominion ponds were, according to the conservation groups -- or improperly enclosed, they can contaminate waterways and groundwater.
Buppert said his group discovered evidence of pollution in Virginia DEQ site visit memos, and on groundwater monitoring reports that Dominion submitted to the agency. The environmental group obtained the reports via a public records request in April. Dominion's monitoring data on the groundwater around the facility showed heavy metals at levels up to 127 times state standards, the environmental groups said.
The conservation groups threatened to sue Dominion under the federal Clean Water Act if the problem isn't addressed.
“Dominion’s failure to even disclose the decades-old, unpermitted coal ash pits until recently raises serious questions about its willingness to address these ongoing problems," Glen Besa, director of Sierra Club's Virginia chapter, said in the statement.
Worries over the handling of coal ash have increased since more than 50,000 tons of the waste material flowed into North Carolina's Dan River in February. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a notice of intent to sue the coal ash polluter responsible for that spill in July.
Tennessee suffered a major coal ash spill in December 2008. The spill there prompted an Environmental Protection Agency effort to design new regulations for coal ash disposal. The EPA plans to release final rules by Dec. 19.
Buppert said the only solution for Dominion's situation would be to move the coal ash to a dry, lined containment facility that is not near a water body. He added that his group, which is investigating all coal ash facilities in Virginia, also has found problems at another Dominion site in Chesapeake, Virginia. That facility has been leaking arsenic for at least 10 years, Buppert said.
"What the Possum Point site tells us about what's going on in Virginia is that coal ash ponds leak pollutants for a very long time," Buppert said. "The more people investigate what's going on at these facilities, the more leaks and contamination problems will be discovered. It's very difficult, if not impossible, to store coal ash in an unlined pit next to a water body without a long-term pollution problem."