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Protesters also demanded that the director of the Department of Environmental Quality investigate allegations that Dominion illegally dumped millions of gallons of coal-ash water into Quantico Creek last spring. (Photo: DyanneJaye/Twitter/cc.)

'The Power is in Our Hands': Virginia Students Protest Coal Ash Dumping

College students occupied the state environmental regulator's office after it issued a permit to allow Dominion Power to dump millions of gallons of toxic coal ash wastewater into local waterways

Nika Knight Beauchamp

"Repeal Dominion's permits!" protesters shouted in unison on Monday during an hours-long occupation of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in Richmond. The state regulator has come under fire for issuing a permit to Dominion Power in January that will allow the utility company to release millions of gallons of toxic coal-ash water into local waterways.

Seventeen students were arrested at the DEQ occupation on Monday, according to the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, which was behind the protests.

As the protest got underway, the coalition explained their action on EcoWatch: "Thirty-five students from the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition are refusing to leave the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) lobby until the director, David Paylor, complies with their demands regarding Dominion Resources’ dumping of coal ash wastewater into the James River and Quantico Creek."

The group's demands were as follows:

1. The DEQ repeals the permits issued to Dominion to begin dumping coal ash wastewater from their Bremo and Possum Point power plants.

2. The current permits are re-issued only after an investigation into the 2015 dumping of untreated wastewater into Quantico Creek.

3. The permits for coal ash wastewater release are rewritten to comply with the best available technology standards, in accordance with the Clean Water Act and that a mechanism for independent third party monitoring is implemented.

The announcement of the DEQ's permit came less than a month after a damning report from local news site InsideNoVa.com that found the utility had illegally dumped millions of gallons of untreated water from toxic coal ash ponds from its Possum Point Power Plant into nearby Quantico Creek last spring.

The power company is attempting to clean up its coal ash ponds, bright turquoise pools of toxic byproduct leftover from burning coal for electricity, which Dominion ceased doing in 2003, according to the news site.

Power companies are moving away from burning coal as a result of growing national concern about climate change. The shift away from coal requires emptying the vast pools of wastewater that were created to contain the byproduct of the coal-burning process.

"Nearly every major river in the Southeast has one or more lagoons on its banks holding slurries of coal ash from power plants," the legal non-profit Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) notes on its website, "containing hundreds of thousands of tons of toxin-laden waste, these pools are often unlined and have leaked arsenic, mercury, thallium, selenium, and other contaminants into the rivers and the underlying groundwater for years, if not decades."

"As part of the ongoing cleanup ahead of the eventual closure of five coal ash ponds at the Dumfries-area power plant, Dominion drained a total of 52.5 million gallons of untreated coal-ash water from one of those ponds last May," InsideNoVa.com reported, and "Dominion said the discharge of storm water was permitted under the utility’s existing Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (VDPES) permit."

The report was not the first time Dominion has been accused of illegally releasing coal-ash water. The SELC has "uncovered decades of coal ash pollution leaking from two different Dominion Virginia Power sites: the Possum Point Power Plant along the Potomac River, and the Chesapeake Energy Center along the Elizabeth River," the legal non-profit says.

The permit issued on January 14 allows the utility to release coal-ash water from two power plants into the Potomac River and two tributaries, Quantico Creek and the James River.

"Dominion contends the coal ash wastewater it intends to discharge actually amounts to a thimble compared to the volume of water in the James and the Potomac," reported the News Virginian, "and that its treatment regimen will not harm marine life."

Richmond's StyleWeekly reported that "Dominion says it intends to build a wastewater treatment plant to process the wastewater before it goes into the James, although Department of Environmental Quality officials noted that the permits do not require the utility to do so."

StyleWeekly observed that the city of Richmond draws most of its drinking water from the James River.

During a public hearing for the permit, a nurse who lives near the James River told Dominion officials, "you are all domestic terrorists."


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