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Dominion Virginia Power's coal ash pond at Possum Point. Photo courtesy Potomac Riverkeepers

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had good news today for those opposed to Dominion Virginia Power’s plans to permanently bury 4 million cubic yards of coal ash on the banks of the Potomac River at Possum Point.

McAuliffe (D) is supporting a moratorium on state permits that would keep Dominion from following through with its controversial cap-in-place plan at Possum Point and other power plants around the state until at least May 1, 2018, according to Sen. Scott Surovell, who wrote and sponsored Senate Bill 1398.

Surovell’s bill sought to put the brakes on Dominion’s coal-ash pond closure plans and require more analysis of clean closure options. But the legislation was watered down by the House of Delegates, which removed a moratorium on permits and weakened the language on the required new assessments.

To address the latter, the governor is also proposing a reinstatement of the bill’s assessment requirements. Dominion to would have to assess current water contamination to its coal ash sites and offer plan to remediate it. The utility would also have to document the feasibility of recycling the ash or digging it up and transferring it to a modern, synthetically lined landfill.

The governor’s action is a reversal from his initial position on the coal ash issue. Earlier this year, McAuliffe said he was confident the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality was following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standards in overseeing the closure of Dominion’s coal ash ponds.

In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, McAuliffe said he continues to “support” DEQ’s approach but acknowledged the “tremendous” public concern about the long-term safety of the Dominion’s plans.

“As such, I am proposing amendments to Senate Bill 1398 that will provide the public with more information on the costs and benefits, risks, and recycling options for coal ash before a final decision on the permits is reached,” McAuliffe said. “My hope is that this additional process will increase the public’s confidence in the path that Virginia ultimately takes.”

Surovell, D-36th, said the governor’s action is a step in the right direction. But he noted the amendments must be approved by the Republican-led House of Delegates, which is far from a sure thing. The General Assembly will take up the bill when it reconvenes April 5.

“In terms of the legislative process, this was about the best we could hope for,” Surovell said. “To me, the moratorium is the most important piece.”

Prince William County Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, said he was also encouraged by the governor’s action.

Principi said he plans to meet with Prince William’s delegation to the state house, most of whom are Republicans, and encourage their support of the new bill.

“That will certainly be the goal, to get everyone on board with what I believe is the most important environmental issue Prince William County has faced in decades,” Principi said.

During a March 7 meeting, held three days before the public comment period closed on Dominion’s application for a permit to bury the coal ash at Possum Point, the supervisors approved a letter asking McAuliffe to amend Surovell’s bill to reinstate the permit moratorium.

The county board also asked Dominion to support the amended bill.

The utility does not yet have a position on the governor’s action, Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson said Wednesday.

“We’ve been very consistent  in saying our focus is on safely closing the ash ponds because it is an important environmental issue,” Richardson said.

In a statement, Dominion reiterated Richardson's view:
 
"This is an important environmental issue for Dominion and Virginia. We appreciate working closely and collaboratively with Sen. Scott Surovell," the statement reads. "We have been consistent in working to develop closure plans specifically designed for each site that are protective of the environment and fully compliant. Our plans are continuing to evolve. We look forward to sharing the results of the assessment with the environmental professionals at DEQ."

Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said the permit moratorium is important because it would allow more time to monitor for groundwater contamination around the coal ash sites. If data show contamination worsening around Possum Point, for example, the findings could trigger EPA rules for mitigation, a process that could lend more support for clean closure strategies.

Environmental groups are concerned, however, about whether Dominion will conduct a truly robust feasibility assessment of recycling or removing the coal ash and whether the utility, a powerful political donor, will actively fight the governor’s amendments.

“We’re very pleased with the amendment to include the moratorium but we’re concerned,” Naujoks said. “We just hope that Republicans in the house … support this bill and the moratorium in this bill to protect communities dealing with coal ash.”

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com.

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