Dominion Virginia Power was warned as far back as 2001 that building a golf course with fly ash from its local coal-fired power plant might pose environmental risks.
Consultants hired by the utility said so based on two studies containing more than 350 pages of data and research.
For seven years, Dominion kept those records confidential. When questions surfaced about the project last year, utility officials continued to keep the studies private for six months.
Dominion's consultants, based on their initial findings, presented the utility with several options. They included extending city water to nearby homes or drilling replacement wells deep enough to avoid possible contamination from fly ash.
Neither of those options was chosen.
Instead, Dominion chose another option, spending more money on an enhanced model that yielded safer projections. In 2008, it cited the reports' findings to defend the environmental integrity of the project.
The full reports became public soon after the utility was sued in late March by roughly 400 residents who say fly ash from Battlefield Golf Club at Centerville has contaminated their drinking water, devalued their property and threatened their health.
The city of Chesapeake, which had been given the reports by Dominion in September, posted them on its Web site in early April, after giving them to The Virginian-Pilot following a public-records request.
Dominion officials say the records were given to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality on the same day as the city.
Dominion insists that it was under no legal obligation to disclose - or even do - the studies and that their results were proprietary.
The utility says that while the initial findings of its consultants raised some environmental concerns, it opted to fund an enhanced, more sophisticated model that yielded more accurate projections, showing the project was safe.
The golf course opened in 2007, with 1.5 million tons of ash from Dominion's Deep Creek power plant used to sculpt its fairways and greens. A Dominion subcontractor paid the original developers to use the ash from its regulated landfill, where it had been piling up at levels high enough to prompt a warning from the Department of Environmental Quality.
The Virginian-Pilot reported last spring that groundwater beneath the golf course was not being monitored and that arsenic, lead and other metals found in fly ash posed leaching risks.
The golf course does not have a liner and contains about half a dozen "lakes" from which the course is irrigated.
Tests by city consultants last year found high levels of arsenic, lead and other contaminants in groundwater under the course. Additional tests by the Environmental Protection Agency, which intervened at the request of the city, also reported elevated levels of arsenic and lead in some groundwater samples from the course property.
Groundwater tests of the golf course site in 2001, before any fly ash was placed there, did not detect arsenic, lead, vanadium and other fly-ash related contaminants, according to data in the first of two studies for Dominion in 2001 by URS Corp.
In a prepared statement last week, Dominion said its consultant used a "state-of-the-art model to analyze the potential environmental effects of using fly ash in the golf course project."
"The consultant recommended methods for using the fly ash in combination with a binder," Dominion stated. "The modeling showed that the steps taken to treat the fly ash are expected to protect the groundwater."
Last September, Dominion committed to paying up to $6 million to cover the cost of extending city water to residents near the golf course.
While the consultant's enhanced modeling provided Dominion with assurances of safety, the initial modeling did not, raising red flags and presenting the utility with some stark options:
- Trying to lower the initial concentrations of arsenic and other constituents expected to leach from the fly ash by adding twice as much binding agent or more.
- Moving the ash mounds farther from nearby homes, creating a "more expansive residential buffer."
- Planning to offer residents an alternative water supply, such as city water or deeper replacement wells.
"Any of these options may have resulted in a potentially unacceptable project cost, requirements for project re-permitting with the city of Chesapeake, negative public perception, etc.," according to the December 2001 report by URS Corp.
"These developments could have led to a decision to end the golf course project or development of a significantly restructured project plan."
Dominion wound up choosing yet another option the consultants posed: spending more money to do more intensive studies, using "more sophisticated modeling tools," which projected much lower risks, centuries away.
That's what Dominion got, and a utility executive - who said in a recent interview that he was not involved at the time these decisions were made - maintains that it's all business as usual in the engineering community.
"A less than fully sophisticated initial study was performed at our request by URS that came up with the recommendations that you quoted and we decided that we needed to look at that in more detail, to add more sophistication to the model to help quantify the details around that further," said J. David Rives, Dominion senior vice president, Fossil & Hydro.
"I think that's the heart of the reason for the second study (the enhanced model) - was to add more detail behind it, more site specificity, some more details, and, you know, spend some more money to really understand in more detail what potentially was going to happen there."
The more sophisticated model was "an enhancement of the approach originally envisioned for this project," URS stated.
The enhanced modeling, using the most conservative, worst-case-scenario leaching data for arsenic, found it would take about 400 years for it to get to the property boundary, where the concentrations would be under the drinking-water standard, said Dan Genest, a Dominion spokesman.
While in various passages the December 2001 URS study refers to the use of "conservative assumptions" in the final modeling, its summary section states:
"... Less than realistic and/or overly conservative assumptions associated with the more simplistic model initially considered in this study were eliminated," it added.
"The goal of the upgraded model was to predict the groundwater concentrations at the site property boundaries more accurately while providing Dominion with a technically defensible approach," it concluded.
Extensive leaching data on the fly ash from Dominion's Chesapeake Energy Center - both from its lined, regulated ash landfill and from its silos containing "fresh" ash - was included in URS' December 2001 report.
URS analyzed a broad array of samples of fly ash, including raw fly ash and some mixed with binding agents such as cement kiln dust and lime kiln dust in varying percentages.
Their analyses identified seven "chemicals of potential concern" - chemicals that were leachable from Dominion's fly ash and which could be transported to groundwater. Those substances were arsenic, lead, vanadium, beryllium, chromium, selenium and thallium - each profiled on the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry's Web site.
The consultants estimated that 82 percent of the residential wells around the site drew water from the shallow Columbia aquifer that lies under the golf course property.
The study said that wells drawing water from this aquifer were "potential receptors" of elements that could leach from the amended ash used to fill the golf course site.
Toward the end of its report, after assuring Dominion that the chosen study model showed "acceptable levels of chemicals once they reach the property boundary," URS recommended that the utility come up with a strategy for long-term groundwater monitoring, in order to avoid any surprises.
"Groundwater conditions during and after completion of the ash fill can be predicted by models, but can only be authenticated by groundwater quality monitoring once the project is under way," URS stated.
The transfer of ash from Dominion's plant to the golf course site began in the spring of 2002 and ended in the spring of 2007, Dominion officials have said.
The golf course opened in the fall of 2007.
While Dominion had obtained an easement from the property owner in 2002 to install monitoring wells around the perimeter, it didn't follow through until late last year, months after questions surfaced.
"I don't know that we were in the long-term maintenance mode at that point in 2008 for a project that was just completed in 2007 that had recommendations associated with it that are centuries down the road," Rives said.
In addition to the two URS stud ies, Dominion commissioned another study by GAI Consultants, dated May 2003, a year after ash placement had begun on the golf course.
The GAI study looked at the potential groundwater impacts from ammonia expected in Dominion's fly ash after the installation of new equipment at its plant.
GAI warned that workers involved in the transfer and distribution of the fly ash, as well as nearby residents, would be subject to some risk from ammonia gas.
"Also, local residents may be exposed to ammonia gas that is transported by wind," GAI stated. "Health concerns may become apparent when there is overexposure to ammonia largely through inhalation or direct skin contact."
The report said that ammonia is "a severe irritant to the eyes, respiratory tract, and skin," and advised workers involved in the mixing, handling and distribution of the ash to wear goggles, gloves, long-sleeve pants and shirts, and to consider using respirators.
Robert McCabe, (757) 446-2327, firstname.lastname@example.org://hamptonroads.com/node/508030