Clarification appended below
Five years ago this month, Danville was ground zero for one of the largest environmental disasters in the history of Southside Virginia. On Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, a coal ash retention pond at a shuttered Duke Energy steam power generation plant just north of Eden in Rockingham County, N.C., collapsed, and millions of cubic yards of toxic, gray sludge spewed into the Dan River.
Officials feared the coal ash would threaten the drinking water supplies of Danville and the town of South Boston in nearby Halifax County, standing by to implement added precautions to protect the plants themselves and residents. (According to Duke, the water quality returned to normal levels after several days.) The toxic sludge settled on the river bottom, requiring a massive cleanup effort by Duke Energy.
Could this ecological nightmare happen in Virginia? You bet it could.
Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility company, operated coal power plants for decades. And in that time, according to state environmental officials, more than 27 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge accumulated at sites across the commonwealth. The plants, necessarily, were located adjacent to rivers to provide water for the steam to generate electricity. And the coal ash was simply dumped into unlined, on-site pits.
What’s in coal ash? Carcinogens such as arsenic, lead and mercury. Though Dominion’s ponds are covered, the pits themselves are unlined, and nearby waterways have tested positive for these and other pollutants that have leached out.
For years, Dominion has used its clout to keep state environmental agencies at bay, choosing to do nothing to remove the ash from its sites. That is, until this year, when the company saw the political writing on the wall and developed a plan to clean up all its retention ponds.
How much will it cost to clean up 27 million cubic yards of toxic sludge? More than $5.7 billion, Dominion projected. And who would get the bill? If you guessed Dominion’s customers in the form of higher monthly utility bills, go to the head of the class. Dominion — a Fortune 500 company worth almost $57 billion and with revenues of $13.3 billion in 2018 — planned to extract the cost of the cleanup from its customers.
Richmond, for decades, has been in Dominion’s back pocket politically; indeed, the state Capitol literally is in the backyard of the company’s massive headquarters in Shockoe Bottom. And the company long has been the largest source of campaign contributions to politicians who, in turn, did the power company’s bidding.
That changed with the 2017 House of Delegates elections, when a new group of legislators came into office pledging their independence from Dominion.
Under the terms of a bipartisan deal in the General Assembly, and with the backing of the Northam administration, the company has agreed to limit the amount of the recovery costs it will extract from its customer base. Customers will see a maximum charge of $5 on their bills, though the length of the fee is still unclear. The company will recycle 25 percent of the sludge, turning it into cinder blocks and concrete; the rest will be sent to four sites and deposited in lined, sealed and fully encapsulated landfills.
This deal is hardly perfect, but it’s better than either alternative: doing nothing or extracting all the costs from Dominion’s ratepayers. And it prevents any other Virginia locality from enduring the nightmare Danville did five years ago.
This editorial has been updated to delete erroneous information about fish in the Dan River dying because of the coal ash spill and to clarify that, while the drinking water supply of Danville and South Boston was not directly threatened, water treatment operators stood by to implement protective measures if needed. The river's water quality levels returned to normal within days.