Coal ash storage a New River worry
Though officials insist the sites are properly safeguarded, a concerned citizens group is not so sure.
GLEN LYN — The old Appalachian Power Co. plant here sits above the New River — and above coal ash storage ponds, the type of facility that earlier this year fouled miles of the Dan River.
About 10 miles upstream, another ash pond sits along the New River at the Celanese plant near Narrows.
Between them is a virtual coal ash landfill — 100,000 cubic yards of coal ash used to underpin an empty private industrial park on U.S. 460.
To a citizens group that spent years battling the Cumberland Park industrial site, the concentration of coal ash in Giles County is troubling.
But state and county officials, and managers at Appalachian and Celanese, said they are confident the ash storage sites along the New River are properly safeguarded.
Each facility, they say, has significant differences from the Duke Energy ash pond that collapsed Feb. 2 in Eden, N.C., creating a 70-mile plume of ash that flowed past Danville.
The spill drew new attention to the arsenic, mercury, lead and other toxins contained in coal ash.
“It’s always a concern when you have waste next to the river, obviously,” Giles County Administrator Chris McKlarney said last week. “But we’ve never had an issue that I’m aware of.”
Vernon Kelley of the Concerned Citizens of Giles County countered that his group is collecting water samples and consulting with attorneys about the results they are gathering.
“It’s not safe,” he said of the riverside location of the ash sites. “It’s not conducive to good management of the environment.”
Beneath the bridge that carries U.S. 460 across the New River at Glen Lyn, water gushes from a pipe into the first of several ponds that stretch down the riverbank.
When the power plant is running, which has become less and less frequently as Appalachian and its parent company American Electric Power prepare to retire the facility next year, this water carries ash stripped from the bottom of the plant’s furnaces, manager Brad Jones said.
Before it gets to the pond, the molten “bottom ash” has been cooled in water and ground into sand-sized bits, Jones said. It washes into the pond and settles.
Later, the bottom ash is scooped out and usually sold or donated for use on walking trails, American Electric Power spokesman John Shepelwich said.
Jones and Shepelwich said AEP sees the bottom ash as different from what’s known as fly ash, collected by filters on the plant’s smokestacks. The fly ash has higher concentrations of toxins and is more likely to surrender them into soil or water, Jones said.
The Glen Lyn plant presently ships its fly ash to a landfill in West Virginia. In the past, it was collected in a 14-acre pond located farther along the river bank from the plant.
In the past year, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality approved the company’s plan to permanently cap and close the fly ash pond.
The ash, which is piled 28 feet to 50 feet deep across the site, will be regraded and a plastic membrane placed atop it. The membrane will be covered with 2 feet of dirt, which will be planted with vegetation to hold it in place, according to the closure plan.
Jones and Shepelwich pointed to two key differences between the Glen Lyn ponds and the Duke Energy facility that leaked into the Dan River. The Duke facility’s ash was a slurry closer to the Glen Lyn plant’s bottom ash pond, rather than the dry fly ash storage area that is being closed.
Perhaps more importantly, the Duke facility had an aging drainage pipe that ran beneath its pond. It was the collapse of this pipe that provided an avenue for the pond to drain into the Dan River.
The Glen Lyn site has no drainage pipes beneath its ponds, which are separated from the New River by high dikes. These get visual inspections daily, Jones said, and more detailed inspections are conducted quarterly and annually.
Since the Duke Energy spill, “We’ve been looking at those systems” again, Shepelwich said.
Jones said that while river water sometimes backs up into the clean water of the power plant’s outflow ponds, it has not flooded the ash ponds themselves.
The Virginia DEQ lists the Glen Lyn ash pond as among a dozen permitted “surface impoundments” of ash connected to the generation of electricity across the commonwealth.
William Hayden, a DEQ spokesman, noted that state regulations treat bottom ash and fly ash identically. But he said there was no record of contamination from any of the dozen ash sites.
“We just not have seen any environmental impacts from impoundments in Virginia,” Hayden said.
Upriver at the sprawling Celanese plant, which produces cigarette filters, workers are in the midst of a $150 million plan to convert coal-burning facilities to natural gas.
But coal is still being used, and fly ash is collected in a pond about 500 feet from the New River, said Travis Jacobsen, a spokesman in Celanese’s headquarters in Dallas.
Like the AEP officials, Jacobsen emphasized that the Celanese ash pond has no drain pipe like the one involved in the Dan River spill.
The Celanese pond is not in the New River’s flood plain, is lined by an impermeable polymer liner, and is monitored daily, Jacobsen said. It is also equipped with an alarm system to alert employees if there are problems, he said.
The ash pond at the Celanese plant has no history of leaks, Jacobsen said.
Touted as a private industrial park, Cumberland Park began as “dry ash put into a landfill,” Shepelwich said. Tons of ash from Appalachian’s Glen Lyn power plant were used to create a 7-acre, mostly level area on the edge of Narrows.
Now Cumberland Park is a bare, grassy field on a man-made bluff above the New River. Sections of sediment fence have collapsed along the base of the steel-reinforced earth berms set up to protect it from floods. At the neighboring Riverview campground, residents said they had seen no activity at Cumberland Park for years.
The campground’s owners have been embroiled in a long legal dispute with the Giles County Partnership for Excellence, which owns Cumberland Park, about agreements related to its construction. A Virginia State Police investigation of the partnership is continuing, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller confirmed Friday, but no charges have resulted and details of what the investigation concerns have not been made public.
The executive director of the Partnership for Excellence is Howard Spencer, the town manager of Glen Lyn and a former county supervisor and Glen Lyn mayor. Spencer did not return messages last week seeking comment for this story.
Virginia relies on the operators of ash sites to monitor for environmental problems, Hayden said.
But unlike the Appalachian plant or Celanese, Cumberland Park has no ash-related environmental permit. Virginia has fewer regulations for coal ash that is part of a “beneficial use,” such as the fill to level Cumberland Park, than for routine disposal, Hayden said.
While there was some state oversight during the park’s construction, that ceased when it was completed in 2010 and there was no requirement for continued monitoring, Hayden said.
After the Duke Energy spill, the DEQ made plans for an inspection at Cumberland Park, but this has not yet been scheduled, Hayden said.
The Partnership for Excellence posted results of groundwater tests around Cumberland Park on its website, but the most recent results are from 2011.
Kelley, of the Concerned Citizens group, said it has carried out its own testing around Cumberland Park. He declined last week to say what the group had found, saying members are waiting to hear back from an attorney.
“It’s leaching,” Kelley said of Cumberland Park. “They are aware of that. Their argument would be that it would dissipate. But there’s a tipping point. How much can you put in the river?”
Giles County’s public drinking water comes from wells. The next public water system to draw from the New River downstream from the coal sites is in West Virginia, where the West Virginia-American Water Co. serves about 12,000 customers from an intake above Bluestone Lake.
On the Dan River, after the Duke Energy ash spill in February, Danville officials had no time to close off the town’s water intake before ash entered the system, city Water Treatment Manager Alan Johnson said.
But routine filtration kept metals out of the system — an outcome that Johnson said he verified through daily tests that continued for a month. Interestingly, water clarity in the system improved as filters were coated with ash, Johnson said — a development that system officials plan to present at an upcoming water operators conference.
Johnson said he has continued weekly tests for the metals usually carried in coal ash, and plans to close the city intake when dredging operations begin to remove a huge, nearby drift of ash that has collected on the river bottom.