Ten days ago, Brian West got a call that, in no uncertain terms, told him not to drink the water from the private well at his home on Possum Point Road in Dumfries.
“It was kind of relieving to get that phone call,” said West, a 51-year-old union steamfitter who has lived within a stone’s throw of Dominion Virginia Power’s Possum Point Plant and its coal ash ponds for 16 years.
“I’m a layperson. To look at all these test results, to look at the numbers, they have different ways to measure the heavy metals. ... You still don’t know who to believe.”
West’s water has been tested three times in the past few months. The Virginia Department of Health told him in a letter that, although its March 7 test found lead, barium, aluminum, boron, cobalt, strontium and other substances, all the concentrations were below any relevant “maximum contaminant levels” established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water.
The lead level was 3 parts per billion, below the EPA “action level” standard of 15 parts per billion, and the health department noted that his water’s high acidity could be corroding lead components of his plumbing. West said he’s familiar with his plumbing and is confident it’s not the cause of any lead contamination.
Another test, conducted March 1 and commissioned on West’s behalf by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit that has fought Dominion Virginia Power’s plans to drain and seal its coal ash ponds, found a lead concentration of 549 parts per billion — more than 36 times the EPA level — among other contaminants.
The third test, conducted March 30 by the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Household Water Quality Program, a partnership between Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, found lead at 120 parts per billion — well below the Riverkeeper test but far above federal requirements.
It was a call from the extension, amid the confusion over the widely varying results, that made it clear he should not drink his water, West said.
West’s well was among six along Possum Point Road and one near Dominion Virginia Power’s Bremo Bluff power plant on the James River in Fluvanna County that have been tested by the state health department in the past five months.
But West, other property owners, politicians and environmentalists have questioned the department’s results.
“I’m not sure what my well is anymore,” said Dan Marrow, 60, who lives near West on Possum Point Road with his wife and two daughters.
“I am so absolutely confused. I know I’ll never drink from it again.”
And others wonder, as coal operators including Dominion and Appalachian Power begin the process of closing ash ponds from Russell County to Chesapeake to meet federal requirements, why the state isn’t conducting more widespread testing of nearby private wells, as the North Carolina legislature required in 2014 after the Duke Energy coal ash spill into the Dan River.
“We’re very concerned about this. The tests are completely inconsistent,” said Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and a prominent Republican who plans to run for governor.
“We’ve got to figure out what’s going on here. It’s a public safety risk. ... Obviously, more tests are going to be required.”
Spurred by the Dan River spill and another in 2008 at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant, the EPA issued new regulations in 2015 on the disposal of coal ash.
Per the rules, coal ash facilities that “pose an unacceptable risk must retrofit or close,” according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Six facilities in Virginia are scheduled to close ponds or other storage areas: four operated by Dominion Virginia Power and two operated by Appalachian Power.
The DEQ has granted permits for Dominion to begin the first phase of the closures at Possum Point and Bremo, which involves draining water from the ponds; treating it to reduce levels of contaminants; and discharging the water into Quantico Creek and the James River, respectively.
Coal ash can contain arsenic, lead, selenium, mercury, boron, thallium, cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel and other metals, but Dominion officials have stressed repeatedly that they are going above and beyond regulatory requirements in treating the coal ash water and planning to seal the ponds in mostly unlined facilities, which will cost about $500 million.
“We want to make sure it’s done right. I drink water out of the James. My family drinks water out of the James,” said Cathy Taylor, Dominion’s senior environmental and sustainability adviser.
“Our employees fish in the James and use the James and the Potomac and any other waterway that’s around our facility.”
Some state lawmakers and environmental groups, however, have been pushing a “clean closure” process similar to that in North Carolina and South Carolina, where energy companies are draining ponds, excavating dry ash and moving it to lined landfills.
“I’ve communicated with the Department of Health to try to have a better understanding as to how it is that multiple entities could test the same water and get radically different results,” said state Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, whose district includes the Possum Point power station and surrounding homes.
Surovell said talks with DEQ officials “made it very clear” that the monitoring wells around the site showed evidence of pollution in the groundwater.
“If North Carolina and South Carolina can find the political will to protect their citizens’ drinking water, I don’t understand why Virginia can’t do it as well,” said Surovell, who unsuccessfully pushed a bill in the General Assembly this year that would have required coal ash to be removed and deposited in a landfill that meets federal standards.
A budget amendment that would have set aside money to pay for private well testing also failed, he said.
Dominion says the “clean closure” would cost $3 billion and involve 1.6 million truck trips.
The Bremo discharge began last month after Dominion Virginia Power reached an agreement with James River Association and Southern Environmental Law Center that committed to additional treatment of the wastewater.
Treated water started flowing from Possum Point into Quantico Creek last week.
Dominion Virginia Power reached a similar settlement with Prince William County, although Stewart said the Board of Supervisors may revisit that decision when it meets Tuesday.
“At this point we just don’t have faith in any of that, and we’re very very worried,” he said. “We’re going to take this into closed session, because there are obvious legal discussions that need to occur.”
Appeals by the state of Maryland and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network of Dominion Virginia Power’s DEQ permit still are pending, but Bill Hayden, a DEQ spokesman, said there is no requirement to stay the permit while the appeals are heard. Maryland’s appeal is scheduled for a hearing June 16 in Richmond.
Hayden said that, although the Department of Health has oversight over private wells, the yet-to-be issued permits that will govern the sealing of the ash ponds, most of which will be capped in their existing locations in unlined pits, “will have full and complete groundwater monitoring” and “will ensure that wells are protected.”
“To date, there is no indication of concern for private well contamination,” he said.
Although Taylor said monitoring wells on Dominion Virginia Power’s plant sites, which are tested in some cases by the utility’s own lab and in others by outside labs, have shown elevated levels of coal ash contaminants, there’s no indication that groundwater has been affected.
“We do see impacts localized to our facilities,” she said. “We see no impacts off our property, and I think the Department of Health testing of drinking water wells confirms that.”
Dwayne Roadcap, a health department director, said there are no water quality standards for private wells and, partly because there is no background data on the wells in question, the tests couldn’t say whether or not the concentrations identified came from coal ash.
He added that the department will consider requests for additional testing on a case-by-case basis.
“In this case, everything we found met the federal standards for public drinking water,” he said.
The variation in the test results could be related to the methodology for collecting the sample or the location of the sample, Roadcap said. He added that whether the sample had been taken as a “first draw” or after purging water from the system, the chain of custody of the sample and other factors could play a role.
William Alvey, 75, doesn’t buy the assurances from Dominion Virginia Power and state officials.
Alvey has lived in his home on Quantico Creek, about 2,000 feet from the nearest ash pond, since 1972. He’s paying about $15,000 to have a public water line run to his house.
Among the substances discovered in his well: hexavalent chromium, the carcinogenic metal made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich,” based on the true story of the contamination of the groundwater of Hinkley, Calif., by a utility company.
“Some of them occur naturally, but not in the amounts that are being found,” Alvey said. “And there are no other industrial efforts around. (Dominion) is the only fox in the henhouse.”
Samuel Harrison, who lives on Quantico Creek about 2,300 feet from an ash pond, stopped drinking his well water years ago after first hearing about potential problems from coal ash.
He found nothing surprising about the Feb. 23 testing of his well by the health department, which found lead, barium, chromium, radium and strontium, among other substances.
“I already knew what they were going to find,” Harrison said. “This is a problem all over the country. I don’t think politicians want to know. Then they would have to deal with it, and it would cost a lot.”
Not everyone on Possum Point Road is worried.
Eileen Thrall, 72, a retired real estate broker who chairs the Prince William County Board of Zoning Appeals and heads the Friends of Quantico Bay, has lived there for 45 years, less than a quarter-mile from West’s house. She also has a private well that she shares with a neighboring property, which was among those tested by the state.
She doesn’t draw a comparison between Duke Energy in North Carolina and Dominion.
“I think people are pretty satisfied with what’s happening. The one thing we don’t want is stuff trucked out of here, because the roads aren’t built for that. ... A lot of this has been blown out of proportion,” she said.
“Things have changed over the years. When they burned coal years ago, there was what I call the black snowfall. ... Nothing is perfect, but I like electricity and I’d like to keep it.”
A well water test by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has represented the Potomac Riverkeeper Network and the James River Association, found hexavalent chromium in the private well of 61-year-old Frances Kerr and her husband, James Tinker, who lived in a nearly 100-year-old house on a hill overlooking the Bremo plant for 12 years.
“We believe that the sources of hexavalent chromium in this well could be the nearby coal ash pond,” the group wrote in a letter to the DEQ and state health department in November. The letter cited Bremo’s toxic release inventory on file with the EPA and Dominion’s own monitoring wells that showed concentrations of the toxic metal.
The concentration discovered in that test was 1.2 parts per billion, above the 0.07 parts per billion screening level North Carolina set after the Dan River spill, when it also required Duke Energy to pay for testing of all private wells within 1,500 feet of ash facilities, but far below the EPA standard set in 1992 for 100 parts per billion for total chromium.
There is no separate federal standard for hexavalent chromium. The tests prompted North Carolina’s health department to send letters to hundreds of well owners last year advising them not to drink their water because of contamination, though it has reversed its decision recently on 330 of those determinations in a move criticized by environmentalists as not based on sound science.
In January, the Virginia Department of Health tested Kerr and Tinker’s water and found that it “fully complies with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.” Hexavalent chromium was below the test method reporting limit of 5 parts per billion.
“After careful consideration, VDH concludes that the constituents found in your drinking water do not represent a health hazard,” the department wrote.
About two weeks ago, Dominion Virginia Power purchased the house. In an interview last week, Kerr said she and her husband had moved out and that she couldn’t discuss the sale.
“Dominion Power and us came to an arrangement,” she said. “Dominion Power did not admit any liability.”
In a previous interview, though, Kerr said she and her husband were concerned about the well tests and the discovery of black dust in the attic they believed was coal ash.
“Our house was for sale, and overnight our house became worthless,” Kerr said in the previous interview. “Now we’re sitting on a useless, contaminated piece of property.”
Taylor said Dominion tested the dust, which resembled ash, but was unable to determine its origin, given that the house predated the power plant and may have burned coal in its fireplace or furnace.
David Botkins, a Dominion Virginia Power spokesman, said the company purchased the property as a construction buffer because of the ongoing work to close the ash ponds.
A nondisclosure agreement was signed, and the sale price was not available. Fluvanna County tax records indicate the property was assessed at a little more than $105,000.
“It’s not like that’s an unusual thing. We’ve done it before. We’ve done it in Fluvanna County before,” Botkins said.
Greg Buppert, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Virginia office, said the center also is investigating the Possum Point well tests.
“The bottom line is, these ponds contaminate groundwater. So it’s certainly likely they could contaminate nearby drinking water wells and it’s an issue that should be taken seriously,” he said.
“We’re still looking into whether there’s a connection between coal ash and the contamination at wells in Possum Point.”
Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks, who spent more than two decades doing environmental work in North Carolina, including on the Dan River spill, said that, in discussions during the past year on closing Virginia’s coal ash ponds, he implored the state DEQ to get Dominion Virginia Power to pay for testing of private wells — something he considered a “very reasonable ask.”
“I just thought this response from the state was really inadequate,” he said. “They don’t really have a strategy, and it’s because Dominion doesn’t want them to have a strategy. ... We’re talking about peoples’ lives and their property values and public health.”
Taylor, the Dominion environmental official, said there were “some conversations” about the utility paying for testing.
“The conclusion was the state health department is really the one that has the expertise and frankly the responsibility to protect drinking water in the state and they were the appropriate ones to do the testing,” she said.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect this correction:
Dumfries resident Eileen Thrall shares a well that was tested by the state Department of Health because of concerns about coal ash contamination from the nearby Possum Point Power Station. The status of the testing was incorrect in a story about coal ash ponds on Page A1 Monday. Thrall's home is also connected to a public water supply.