This week’s coal ash community profile post was written by Gabriel DeRita, a Sierra Club Communications Apprentice. Also, follow today’s EPA coal ash public hearing in Chicago via our @SierraClubLive and @SierraClubIL Twitter accounts.

The area around Surry County, Virginia, is already home to some sinister projects, including several major coal ash disposal sites and Michael Vick’s infamous dog fighting operation. One of the disposal sites is the local golf course, the Battlefield Golf Club. The green is sculpted with 1.5 million tons of coal fly-ash. 

Now a major Virginia power provider, the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), wants to site a 1500 mega watt coal plant, accompanied by several hundred acres of ash disposal sites, along the Blackwater River in Surry.

This project, if completed, will be the largest coal-fired power plant in Virginia. Its coal ash will be stored in several landfill areas around the plant. If the power plant itself falls through, ODEC representatives have indicated an option of developing the site as an exclusive coal ash landfill.

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Executives announced on Wednesday, September 8, that the project deadline is being pushed back from 2016 to 2020, citing concerns over pending federal regulations and lagging electricity demand. Though ODEC remains committed to pursuing the project, the delay comes as a welcome relief to local residents, and backs up arguments made by environmental and community groups that there is no pressing need for coal-fired power from such a massive plant.
Local residents like Betsy Shepard, mother of two, have been fighting ODEC tooth and nail since 2008, and the announcement comes as a major vindication of their efforts. Shepard is a busy full-time mom, but found the time to take a leading role in her community’s fight to curb the march of coal ash contamination.

“I had no intentions of taking such an active role in the fight, but as is often the case in small communities, one has to step up and lend a hand when there is a need,”
said Shepard.

In meetings with ODEC officials, Shepard and her fellow community organizers have met with flippant and dismissive comments.

In one instance, company officials told Shepard’s husband they will plant trees to block his view of the 650 foot smoke stacks that will accompany the plant. When he pointed out there are few trees in Virginia taller than 100 feet, the official replied, “Well, you won’t be able to see the smokestacks if you’re right up on [the trees].” Unfortunately for the residents of Surry, none of them live in trees.

When asked if they will provide a lifetime guarantee on the disposal site’s protective liners, the ODEC representative laughed and said, “Nothing lasts forever.”
Shepard replied, “Yes. That’s our fear.”

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The new plant is of particular concern not only because of its size, but its location adjacent to the Blackwater River and its large area of surrounding wetlands, which feeds into the shallow aquifers that all 7,000 residents of Surry County rely on for fresh water.

Residents of the county use private wells, and the three incorporated towns have their own municipal water systems, all drawn from aquifers. There is no water treatment or reservoir in Surry County. Because the Dendron aquifer is unconfined and receives water directly from the surface, it is very susceptible to contamination. Anything that flows through the ground surface can quickly reach the water table. According to Shepard’s calculations, the coal ash sites will sit approximately 1,500 feet from Dendron’s main water source.

The proposed site is also within three miles of county schools, wedged between wetlands along the Blackwater River and a row of homes on main street Dendron, a small town within Surry.

Shepard is fearful of the changes this will bring to the quaint, small-town Virginia landscape. “The plant and ash piles would be, literally, in people’s backyards…picture Leave It to Beaver’s house with a massive industrial complex, 650-foot smokestacks, and 7-story tall ash piles directly behind it.”

The proximity to homes also creates air quality concerns. Surry County has the third highest asthma rates in the State of Virginia. In ODEC’s permit application to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, they describe the possibility of “fugitive emissions” and “wind erosion” from the vast ash stacks. Company officials sang a different tune at community meetings, saying the ash was secure and would only blow in a 100-year storm, claiming “zero [airborne] emissions.”

This clear disconnect between fact and rhetoric is especially frustrating to Shepard, who spent dozens of hours educating herself and her neighbors on the threats they will face, only to have industry officials call public meetings and spread misinformation to her community.

Most people in her town had no idea a massive coal plant is being proposed, let alone any stance on the issue. Shepard and her friends joke that “we know more about coal than we ever wanted to,” but their diligent fact-checking and research has helped inform her community about the risks of the proposed plant, and opposition is growing.

After word got out about the plant proposal, the town council meeting was “packed like sardines,” with people lined up out the door to comment. “Word spreads fast in a small town,” Shepard jokes. But thanks to her efforts to inform her neighbors and their effective organizing, every comment submitted was against the plant.

The recent announcement of a two-year delay in the project by ODEC comes as a major relief to community residents, but Shepard and others acknowledge the fight is far from over. On the heels of this delay, it is important the pressure against this project remains strong. Sign the petition against the Surry project.

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducts an ongoing series of nationwide hearings on re-classifying coal ash as the toxic waste it is, the voices of community leaders like Betsy Shepard will continue to be instrumental in providing real stories to back up the hard data on the dangers of coal ash. Click here to find out more about a hearing near you, and how you can add your voice to the growing call to protect American communities from the dangers of coal ash.

EPA needs to set federal standards for coal ash disposal to protect communities like Surry from increased and continued exposure to known toxins. As more communities speak out on this issue, the harder it will be for federal officials to ignore their calls for clean air, clean water, and an end to coal’s toxic legacy in America.