A pair of Dumfries homeowners have filed suits seeking millions in damages from Dominion Energy, claiming heavy metals seeping from coal ash ponds at the Possum Point Power Station contaminated their drinking water wells.
The power station’s coal ash ponds, where the remnants of burnt coal were kept, are the scene of a clash among the utility, residents, and state and local officials over the company’s closure plans.
The lawsuits — filed on behalf of Daniel Marrow and his family and Brian West, both of whom own homes on Possum Point Road near the power station — allege that concentrations of hexavalent chromium, lead, boron, cobalt and other metals found in their wells came from the nearby power plant, which burned coal until 2003.
“The defendant knew or should have known that placing multiple unlined coal ash ponds near a residential community that relied on well water would cause groundwater contamination that would then contaminate the nearby properties and potable wells,” the suits say.
Marrow’s suit claims damages of $6 million while West’s claims $3 million.
The Virginia Beach lawyer who filed both suits, Mark J. Favaloro, referred a reporter to Annapolis, Md., attorney Roy Mason, who could not be reached Friday.
“Dominion is aware that the lawsuit has been filed in Prince William County,” company spokesman Robert Richardson said. “However, the company has not been formally served and does not have any further comment at this time.”
In December, Dominion announced that it would hook up residents near the Possum Point station to public water after months of arguing that contamination from the ash ponds was not leaving the site.
New monitoring wells requested by the state Department of Environmental Quality showed elevated levels of metals and movement patterns that were inconsistent with past data, the company said.
Eight residents have received offers to connect to public water and three have accepted, Richardson said.
Rounds of testing by the Virginia Department of Health, the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Household Water Quality Program, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network and a contractor hired by Prince William County have found varying levels of troubling metals, such as hexavalent chromium, lead, antimony and other constituents that can be associated with coal ash — such as boron and strontium — as well as low pH levels that corrode plumbing, in drinking water wells along Possum Point Road.
None has pointed conclusively to the source of the contamination, which can be difficult to prove.
A report released in October by a Duke University team found that hexavalent chromium — a potential carcinogen — was naturally occurring in hundreds of drinking water wells in North Carolina near Duke Energy coal ash ponds that had long been suspected as the source.
Marrow and West have been vocal critics of Dominion over the past year as the company faced mounting opposition to its plans to close its ash ponds onsite at four locations across the state.
That wave of resistance made it all the way to governor’s desk in April in the form of legislation that halted the permitting process for closing the ponds, requiring mapping of existing contamination at the sites and more study of alternatives, including excavating the millions of tons of ash for deposit in a modern, lined landfill.
Dominion had planned to consolidate the ash in five ponds at Possum Point, Chesterfield, Bremo Bluff and Chesapeake and cover them with a synthetic liner and a layer of turf after treating and discharging the water they contain in response to new federal regulations on ash storage.
But after opposing the legislation during the General Assembly session, Dominion ultimately agreed to conduct the assessments and abide by the permitting delay, which extends to May 2018.
“We’re right in the middle of doing the assessment work that the General Assembly and the governor tasked us with doing,” Richardson said. “It’s important to remember that this is a legacy problem that goes back more than 50 years and it’s getting fixed on our watch.”
Environmental groups say tests show all of Dominion’s ash ponds are leaching heavy metals into ground and surface water.
And in March, a federal judge, siding with the Sierra Club, found that arsenic from the ash pits at the closed Chesapeake Energy Center was leaking into the Elizabeth River in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, though he did not impose penalties and directed Dominion and the environmental group to submit remediation plans.
Both have done so, though, “despite good faith efforts by both parties, the parties disagree on several other aspects of the plan,” Dominion’s filing says.
More than two years ago, Dominion released nearly 28 million gallons of water from one of its coal ash ponds at the Possum Point station into an unnamed tributary of Quantico Creek that locals call the “Beaver Pond.” Marrow and West’s properties border the Beaver Pond.
Though the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality later pronounced that the discharge was covered by an existing company permit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t so sure.
For about a year, the federal agency has been examining whether the discharge, which came before Dominion installed a pricey treatment system to reduce the concentrations of heavy metals in the coal ash wastewater, violates the Clean Water Act.
“That was DEQ’s determination,” DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said. “EPA is looking into that, and we don’t know what their conclusion is. Whatever they do conclude, DEQ will do whatever is necessary to support that.”
The EPA has sent informational requests to Dominion and to the DEQ as it “evaluates the company’s compliance” with its discharge permits at Possum Point, an EPA spokesman said.
Last fall, Mark Zolandz, a member of the EPA’s enforcement branch in the water protection division, called the DEQ seeking information on Dominion’s coal ash pond closures, according to a voicemail obtained by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.
“We’re trying to determine whether we should be pursuing enforcement against Possum Point only for their discharges from last year, which we’ve talked with them a little bit about and they’ve shared some information about or if there are more global issues,” Zolandz said.
The message prompted an email from Jefferson Reynolds, director of the DEQ’s enforcement division, to DEQ Director David Paylor and Director of Operations James Golden.
“This is a message I think you should hear first-hand concerning EPA interest in enforcement at Possum Point,” Reynolds wrote. “Let me know if you need additional information or want to set up a meeting to discuss the variables.”
That exchange is routine, according to Hayden.
“The fact that EPA communicated to DEQ about the situation wasn’t really all that unusual. The fact that our staff informed Director Paylor is not all unusual. That’s a standard thing we do,” he said in March. “There’s really nothing out of the ordinary as far as that goes.”
In January, the EPA sent Dominion what’s known as a “308 letter,” a reference to Section 308 of the Clean Water Act.
“It’s the first step EPA takes in an enforcement action,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former director of civil enforcement at the EPA who is now the executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. “When those letters go, it says there’s enough of a concern that the agency wants some more information to determine whether there’s been some kind of violation.”