On Wednesday, May 16, the York River Sierra Club held an evening discussion at Sandy Bottom Park in Hampton Virginia focused on Coal Ash. Coal ash is the toxic remains of coal burning in power plants. It is full of metals and chemicals that cause cancer, developmental disorders and reproductive problems. It poisons our water and kills fish and wildlife. Guest speakers were Dean Naujoks, of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, and Mary-Stuart Torbeck, Senior Organizer of the VA Chapter Sierra Club.
Mr. Naujoks is an expert and committed activist on coal ash issues and has had many years of experience working to keep our waters clean. In particular, he was successful in monitoring and exposing the contamination from the coal ash ponds at Dominion Power’s Possum Point Power Plant near Quantico. Mr. Naujoks described earlier work concerning Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds in North Carolina, which had contaminated both ground and surface water. He spoke about the infamous Dan River spill in 2014, where Duke Energy spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash. The company later pled guilty to criminal negligence. Mr. Naujoks spoke about the type of fight needed here in our own backyard. He is concerned about Dominion Power’s handling of its coal ash ponds and storage areas in Virginia, including several located in York County. He recommends that citizens be very wary of the “cap-in-place” fix recommended by polluting companies like Dominion, as its effectiveness is dubious at best. Combating this type of water pollution a tough fight, because regulation agencies are typically under-staffed, under-funded, or unwilling to aggressively go after the polluting companies. Local York County residents are now asking for a citizen’s committee, in order to try to have a say on how York County moves forward on coal ash issues.
Mary-Stuart Torbeck works to ensure that Virginia’s waterways are not polluted by coal ash. She spoke about the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and current difficulties trying to keep coal ash contaminants from leaching into our wells, groundwater, and waterways. We need to be particularly concerned here on the Virginia Peninsula, because of the close proximity of our coal ash sites to waterways. Not only are the current sites likely leaching carcinogenic pollutants into our water, but future sea level rise could also easily overwhelm the sites, causing more catastrophic spills. She encouraged citizens to stay informed on this problem, to tell their friends and neighbors about it, and to push regulation agencies to consistently enforce the rules that keep our water safe. The polluting companies should be forced to consider recycling coal ash, rather than merely burying it or “covering it up.”
Ultimately, the best long-term solution is decisive movement toward clean energy. By moving away from coal burning in our power plants, and toward “clean” solutions like solar and wind power, we will stop producing coal ash and the resulting problem of how to get rid of it.