Coal ash: Everything you need to know

Permits, toxins, lawsuits — a quick overview of the coal ash at Possum Point

Photo from Potomac Riverkeeper Network

Photo from Potomac Riverkeeper Network


Coal ash. It’s been in the news a lot recently. But what is it, why is it a threat to the Potomac, and where does the issue stand now? Look no further. We’ve condensed the news into one quick blog post, just for you.

The Latest

On May 9, Dominion began releasing treated coal ash water into Quantico Creek, which flows directly into the Potomac River. The discharges will continue every day, 24 hours a day until April 2018.

In January, the Virginia State Water Control Board approved a permit for Dominion Power to dispose of over 200 million gallons of coal ash stored in ponds at its Possum Point facility along the Potomac by dumping treated coal ash water into the creek.

Though the state’s permit did set requirements regarding allowable levels of toxins and water quality monitoring of the coal ash water before it is dumped into the creek, the permit sparked outrage in the community and spurred several lawsuits that contend the permit does not do enough to protect public health and the health of Quantico Creek and the Potomac. 

Lawsuits were filed by Prince William County, where the plant is located, the state of Maryland, which has jurisdiction over the Potomac River where Quantico Creek drains, and Potomac Riverkeeper Network, an affiliate of the national Waterkeeper Alliance. Prince William County has since dropped its suit.

The battle over the coal ash permit has brought to light some other concerning news regarding Dominion, including the fact that the utility dumped approximately 30 million gallons of untreated coal ash into Quantico Creek in May 2015, before it was issued the January permit. The town of Dumfries, Virginia, along with Potomac Riverkeeper, have called on the EPA to conduct a criminal investigation

It has also come to light that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which oversees the State Water Control Board, has a cozy relationship with Dominion. The utility paid for David Paylor, the head of DEQ, to attend the Master’s and picked up his bar tab. The trip cost $3500.

Dominion maintains that its current plan, to treat the coal ash water and release it into Quantico Creek is environmentally responsible. The alternative, loading the waste into dump trucks and hauling it away to a landfill, could take a decade or more they say. 

Meanwhile, some residents near the power plant in Fairfax County, Virginia, have stopped drinking their well water, which they have found to be contaminated with harmful chemicals from the ponds. Fishermen are also concerned that the coal ash water, even when treated to meet the permit requirements, will kill fish and aquatic life and negatively impact water quality downstream.


Coal ash is what is left behind when a power plant burns coal to produce electricity. It is one of the most common forms of industrial waste in the United States, and up until 2003, the Dominion power plant just south of Alexandria along the Potomac was burning coal and producing millions of pounds of coal ash waste.

Coal ash contains toxic heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, and a slew of other chemicals. The waste has traditionally been stored in landfills or unlined man-made ponds, many near waterways. 

Two major spills in the last several years, one in Tennessee and one in North Carolina, prompted the EPA to reevaluate regulations regarding coal ash. The agency released revised regulations in April 2015, and utilities across the country are now scrambling to get rid of or update storage facilities for millions of tons of toxic waste. The state permits issued for coal ash disposal at Possum Point will be precedent-setting for other facilities in the state.

For more on the EPA’s regulations, including how the agency is incentivizing utilities to quickly deal with their coal ash, read this article by Whitney Pipkin from the Bay Journal.

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