Power Company Accused of Hiding Dangers of Coal Ash Dump

The saga over a that coal ash dump masquerading as a golf course in Virginia continues.  And it keeps getting worse for the people living next to it. 

Recall that Dominion Power constructed an 18-hole golf course next to a neighborhood in Chesapeake, Virginia, seemingly as a clever ruse to dispose of 1.5 million tons of contaminated fly ash, a byproduct of the burning of coal at its power plants in other parts of the state.  The story broke over the summer -- I blogged it here and here -- when homeowners filed a lawsuit accusing the utility company of converting their neighborhood into another Love Canal.  As the golf course construction manager testified, "It was clear that a golf course wasn't being built.  It was a coal ash dump.  All Dominion ever cared about was tonnage and how much more they could dump."

Now come reports that the power company executives knew all along about environmental and health risks associated with the coal waste, yet to win approval for the project they insisted to local officials and residents that the material was "safe as dirt."

Above is the Battlefield Golf Club at Centerville, under construction in 2007 using fly ash made from coal waste that had piled up at Dominion’s Chesapeake Energy Center. (Courtesy of L. Todd Spencer | Virginian-Pilot)

According to an investigative story by The Virginian-Pilot, internal records released as part of the lawsuit reveal that Dominion executives deliberated behind closed doors on a strategy aimed at rehearsing story lines, parsing answers to minimize anticipated concerns, and deciding what information to hide from regulators and the public.   

In one memo about preparing for a public hearing, a participant wrote, “Do not mention hazardous vs. drinking water.  Just say 'completely non-hazardous.’”

It worked.  State regulators raised little resistance.  Local officials trusted the energy company’s judgment and granted approval.

More than 400 people have sued Dominion (and the golf course developer) for more than $1 billion in damages.  Homeowners living adjacent to the golf course allege that the energy company ignored consultants who told them hazardous materials would leach into drinking water wells.  Now, they say they are stuck living next to a toxic waste dump, suffering health problems and forced to live in houses they have no hope of selling.

Besides the golf course builder, a longtime Dominion Power employee who lives in the neighborhood has become disillusioned.  Bob Stephenson moved with his wife and two children to a four-bedroom house across from the golf course in 1999.  According to the article:

He  trusted his company.  He stood before his neighbors and the City Council and endorsed the golf course project, according to his statement.

Soon, dump trucks hauling fly ash were making hundreds of trips past his house.  “This went on for years,” he said.  Some even turned around in his driveway.

One of his sons has asthma, and it grew worse in the dark ash clouds, he said.  Eventually, they would have to stop drinking their well water.

Turns out the entire neighborhood can no longer use well water for cooking and drinking.  Residents must line up outside a small shack in the parking lot behind a local church, where a spigot delivers fresh water.  People fill up plastic jugs several times a week.

As for Stephenson, his home and four-acre property have been assessed at $373,000.  But he hasn't bothered to put it on the market.  “I don’t think I can give it away,” said.