Legal Community, Utilities Await Ruling on Virginia Coal Ash Case

Environmentalists want utilities to move coal ash waste from sites like this one along the James River in Virginia, to safer, leech-proof landfills.
Environmentalists want utilities to move coal ash waste from sites like this one along the James River in Virginia, to safer, leech-proof landfills. Courtesy: Nick Kotula

The Clean Water Act was signed into law to maintain and protect our country’s waters, but there has never been an interpretation of the law that says it applies to groundwater, too. That is, until now. A judge in Virginia is expected to make a decision that could have widespread impact on the way utilities dispose of their coal ash after power production. Legal experts say it’s the first case of its kind to go to trial, and based on the judge’s decision, it could mean either dirtier rivers or higher electric bills in the future.

One of Dominion Virginia’s coal ash disposal sites is located along the Elizabeth River in southeast Virginia. Environmentalists assert the heavy metal-laced coal ash is leeching into the groundwater below the ash pond and finding its way into the river. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against Dominion, alleging the utility was in violation of the Clean Water Act, and should be forced to move its coal ash deposits to a dry and lined facility away from waterways. Legal experts, power utilities, and environmental consultants around the country will be tuning in when the judge makes his decision, because it would provide the first precedent relating to the 2014 amendments to the Clean Water Rule as they pertain to groundwater.

Utilities like Dominion Virginia argue water-proof caps ,like the one pictured here being used on one of the coal ash basins near the Elizabeth River, provide the same benefits as excavation. Courtesy:AP
Utilities like Dominion Virginia argue water-proof caps ,like the one pictured here being used on one of the coal ash basins near the Elizabeth River, provide the same benefits as excavation. Courtesy:AP

Environmentalists and power companies have been debating over how to dispose coal ash for years. Environmental groups want the waste that’s currently stored near waterways to be transported to safer, leech-proof facilities, a process that a coal industry trade group indicated would cost more than a trillion dollars, and in all likelihood would increase the price of electricity service. Utilities advocate capping the already existing sites with rain proof liners, saying that would be a more fiscally pragmatic way to protect water quality, although they provide no solution for ash pond collapses like the 2014 collapse in North Carolina that resulted in millions of dollars of environmental damage. Even so, there were concerns over the impact of these possible contaminations. During arguments in the Dominion Virginia Case, there were conflicting reports on just how much arsenic from the coal ash had found its way into surface water, and if it was truly enough to pose a danger to human health. With this in mind, the presiding judge questioned the validity of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fix the problem.

The judge has not yet said how long it will take him to rule on this case. Whichever way he rules, legal experts say the decision is likely to be appealed, and might even be brought in front of the United States Supreme Court. Environmentalists are already claiming victory, saying they hope the amount of attention put on Dominion will influence other utilities to consider changing their coal ash disposal practices.

Environmentalists argue rain-proof caps do not provide a solution to coal ash pond collapses like this one that happened along the Dan River in Virginia back in 2014. Courtesy: The Center for Energy, Environment, And Sustainability
Environmentalists argue rain-proof caps do not provide a solution to coal ash pond collapses like this one that happened along the Dan River in Virginia back in 2014. Courtesy: The Center for Energy, Environment, And Sustainability

When this case reaches its ultimate disposition, it is likely to have a significant impact not only on the storage and transport of coal ash, but the breadth of the ‘waters of the United States’ language from the Clean Water Rule, impacting not just arsenic, but the full breadth of hazardous substances and the U.S. EPA’s authority to regulate their cleanup. Considering that EnviroForensics’ day to day expertise deals heavily with the cleanup of groundwater, we will certainly be watching the case closely. An opinion finding that groundwater is not a part of the Waters of the United States under the new Clean Water Rule could conceivably render the regulatory framework that keeps our well-derived water clean ineffectual until new rules in line with the court’s decision could be drafted. Either way, a decision is forthcoming, and we will keep you posted on it when it happens.  Stay tuned!

Eliminating Background Sources of Vapor Contamination at Active Dry Cleaners

Vapor intrusion continues to be one of the most common exposure pathways that we investigate in our work at EnviroForensics.  We’ve mentioned in past blogs that many household and commercial products can serve as background sources of contamination in indoor air, making it difficult to determine how much contamination is truly due to vapor intrusion from the subsurface.  The presence of background sources is likely to increase concentrations of contaminants in indoor air samples if they are not eliminated prior to sampling and this bias may misrepresent indoor air as it relates to vapor intrusion.  Therefore, elimination of background sources is necessary to obtain a true measurement of indoor air quality related to vapor intrusion.

But what about cleaning products and emissions at an active dry cleaning businesses?  Dry cleaning emissions are also considered a background source that can contribute to indoor air conditions, but removing them is not as easy as simply moving a bottle of cleaning supplies out of the building before samples are collected.  IDEM recently required indoor air sampling in each tenant space at a strip mall where one of our clients owns a coin operated laundromat and actively performs dry cleaning with PCE and TCE. The EnviroForensics team had to go the extra mile to make sure background sources were eliminated as best as possible before collecting the air samples.

After assessing the strip mall’s basic construction and configuration to gather information pertaining to air circulation, we determined that the best approach was to physically remove as many cleaning materials containing PCE or TCE as possible and then complete a fresh air exchange in each tenant space at least 48 hours before sampling.  We worked with our client to determine a period of time when his business could continue to operate but cease dry cleaning for approximately three (3) days.  Cleaning products that could easily be removed were taken out of the building, but materials were not drained from the dry cleaning machine and dry cleaned clothes were wrapped in plastic and left in place.

After coordinating with the other businesses in the strip mall, a fresh air exchange was conducted in each tenant space using a ventilation fan to draw air from inside the building to the outside, allowing fresh air to flow in.  When the air exchange was complete, the EnviroForensics team waited 48 hours before collecting indoor air samples inside each tenant space.  In doing so, the project team able to satisfy the IDEM requirement for vapor intrusion assessments, making sure that the samples collected were truly representative of vapor intrusion from subsurface conditions.

EnviroForensics continues to think outside the box to identify viable solutions that will minimize the burden on our client’s ability to run their business while addressing their environmental liabilities.

Taking on an Environmental Challenge Thousands of Miles Away

EnviroForensics is based in Indianapolis, but we don’t let our central location get in the way of addressing environmental issues across the country. Our project managers are equipped with years of experience leading investigations and remediation projects from both out in the field and behind a desk. In that time, we have also cultivated trusting relationships with outside vendors from all over the country, and have a keen understanding of individual state environmental regulations, making geographic proximity virtually irrelevant.

Recently, EnviroForensics did a project on the West Coast with an unusually tight deadline. A client in California needed soil and groundwater data collected, analyzed, and reported within a week. We received the phone call late on a Friday afternoon. Ordinarily, coordinating the logistics for a such a project would be a Herculean task, but due to the hard work of our staff and connections we have built in the Bay Area, we were able to line up a private utility locate contractor, a drilling contractor, an environmental equipment vendor, and a California-certified analytical laboratory by the end of business that same day. Our personnel caught a flight early the next week and we were well on our way.

EnviroForensics was founded in California in 1996, so we understand the unique regulatory challenges regarding permitting and sample collection. We worked with our partners in the Bay Area to ensure all appropriate permits were obtained prior to the start of work. Our field team advanced hand augers in a tight space within the site building and direct push borings within the site parking lot. Soil and groundwater samples were collected within one (1) day, minimizing the disturbance to the property owner’s on-site business. The samples were hand-delivered to the laboratory and the testing results were received and reported to the client on-time, within one week of his initial request.

When taking on a project, whether it’s right around the corner, or thousands of miles away, a steady, well-seasoned team is needed to lead the operations. Additionally, a knowledge and familiarity with the local rules and regulations and trustworthy partnerships in the area make a big impact. For this project and countless others, our project managers have proven they possess the ingenuity and the expertise to effectively manage environmental investigations and cleanups both locally and nationally.

‘Tis the season for Vapor Intrusion Testing!!


Indoor air sampling canister used to measure subsurface soil gas during a vapor intrusion assessment

The schedule at EnviroForensics during the summer and winter months are jam-packed with indoor air and soil gas assessments. During these time frames every year, field staff head out with sampling canisters and equipment in tow, checking businesses and homes for Vapor Intrusion impacts. This includes looking for cracks and other structural fallacies where volatilized chemicals present in the subsurface can sneak into the indoor air of buildings and homes. This is no mere coincidence. The winter and summer months are optimal times to test for Vapor Intrusion due to both indoor and subsurface conditions, as well as state-mandated testing parameters.

Indoor air concentrations can be difficult to measure given the many variables that need to be considered. Outside barometric pressure and temperatures, soil temperature and moisture content, ground water levels, building construction, the integrity of the foundation, potential preferential pathways, and indoor-outdoor air exchange rates can all affect vapor migration through the ground and into a building. Due to the high variability in indoor air and soil gas sampling results, and the limited amount of data collected for analysis, industry experts consider it to be more efficient and health protective to collect vapor samples under what are considered “worst-case conditions” in order to determine if vapor intrusion is indeed occurring. Collecting samples during “worst-case conditions” provide a better understanding as to just how high the chemical concentrations can get in the indoor air.


  1. Windows and Doors are Closed
    Vapor Intrusion is more likely to occur during the Summer and Winter months because doors and windows tend to remain shut, and tenants are using their heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems during these time periods exclusively for the circulation inside the building. These factors alone promote a higher risk of vapor intrusion. Keeping the windows and doors shut allow any chemicals entering the building or house to accumulate due to the decreased air circulation and decreased air dilution from fresh outside air. Additionally, the HVAC system can create a pressure differential that actually pulls vapors up from the subsurface.
  2. The Water Table Declines
    Below the subsurface, where the chemical contamination is located, conditions are ripe for “worst case conditions.” Since the water table tends to drop during the Summer and Winter months in Indiana and the soil moisture content decreases, more pore space is created in the vadose zone, allowing more vapors to collect below the foundation. With a higher probability of vapors sneaking into a building, the summer and winter conditions tend to provide us with the most accurate measuring stick for the worst case scenario than the rest of the year.

Most state regulators make collecting samples during “worst-case conditions” a requirement in Vapor Intrusion investigations. For example, The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) will not give a “no further action” on a site unless sampling data has been collected during the window of time when conditions are ideal for Vapor Intrusion to occur and the concentration of the volatile organic compound (VOC) is below levels that could prove dangerous to human health.

The concept of Vapor Intrusion and the study of its environmental impacts is still in its relative infancy. With each passing year we’re learning more about this type of exposure pathway and what we can do to better detect it. Science has taught us that the summer season isn’t just for baseball, barbecues, and beaches, and the winter time isn’t just for scarves, snowmen, and skating. The two seasons are also the optimal times to get the best possible understanding of the air quality inside your home or business.  The better we understand the air we breathe, the more likely we can protect it from chemicals that pose a potential risk to our health.

Learn more about our Vapor Intrusion Assessment and Mitigation Services.

Enhanced Reductive Dechlorination Showing Positive Returns at Indiana Dry Cleaning Site

While the surrounding Mooresville, Indiana community applauds Crest Cleaners for proactively cleaning up a previously unidentified hazardous mess that was left behind from historic dry cleaning practices, the workhorses remediating the contamination are grinding away below the subsurface.  Tiny microorganisms are destroying the PCE in the groundwater and reducing the concentration of the contaminant. It’s all a part of the “Enhanced Reductive Dechlorination,” process, which is the primary approach of the Remedial Work Plan (RWP) being implemented by EnviroForensics.

Air quality test canister placed in adjacent to determine Vapor Intrusion impact.
Air quality test canisters placed in adjacent building to determine Vapor Intrusion impact.

In addition to the potential for human health risks at the Site as a result of soil or groundwater exposure, the contaminant plume in the groundwater represented a potential vapor intrusion risk to an offsite building.  The project team debated between two viable options:

1.      Install, monitor, and maintain a Sub-Slab Depressurization System (SSDS) at the offsite location to mitigate the potentially harmful vapors underneath the building, which would have required years of maintenance and groundwater sampling; or

2.      Implement an ERD application to reduce the concentration of the groundwater plume, and eliminate potential vapor intrusion issues.

Based on the overall benefit to the community and to reduce stress and aggravation to adjacent property owners that comes with long-term monitoring, the project team chose option two.

Fences being put up around one of the injection sites.
Fences being put up around one of the injection sites.

Here’s how the remediation at this site worked. Naturally occurring bacteria called Dehalococcoides ethanogenes (DHC) are in the groundwater completing a process called reductive dechlorination where the chlorine molecules are cleaved off and replaced by hydrogen particles.  This process continues until the resulting compound is no longer dangerous.   At this site, the process was occurring, but not at a rate that would make the cleanup cost effective for the client.  In order to complete this cleanup we utilized a process called bioaugmented enhanced reductive dechlorination (ERD) and in-situ chemical reduction (ISCR).  The process begins by sampling the groundwater across the remediation area for contaminant concentrations and geochemical parameters including DHC populations to determine the dosage of injected materials required in each area of the site.  Different areas received modified doses of materials based on the calculations completed by our geochemist.  The ERD agent (3D-Microemulsion or 3DMe) was injected along with Chemical Reducing Solution (CRS), an ISCR augmentation.  The ISCR agent immediately begins hydrolysis reactions directly destroying the PCE contaminant while producing reduction reactions with the natural chemistry that will allow the 3DMe to better complete its work.  The two work synergistically, increasing the cost effectiveness of the injection.  The pre-sampling of DHC revealed that the population of DHC needed to be augmented.  10 gallons of a DHC enhanced fluid was injected at each of the 92 injection locations used for the ERD/ISCR.   The combination of these three injected materials allows for minimal site disturbance and a high level of effectiveness for the cleanup of drycleaning solvents.

Intrinsically safe fan installed on building
Intrinsically-safe fan installed on building to manage potential methane production.

An often overlooked byproduct of the ERD process is methane. As a preventative measure, the field staff upgraded the Site building SSDS with an intrinsically-safe fan and installed an intrinsically-safe SSDS at the offsite building as an interim measure.  Soil gas points were also installed between the injection areas and the adjoining properties to the east.  Additionally, EnviroForensics has extra intrinsically-safe fans and piping ready to be installed, should there be a methane issue at the surrounding properties.

The results from the first injection event were very promising. Groundwater contaminant concentration went down from thousands of micrograms per liter before the injection to single digits of micrograms per liter one month after the injections. Quarterly groundwater sampling will continue for a year or two to demonstrate that the contaminant plume is retreating or remediated. The ultimate goal of the ERD approach is to reach Site closure quickly, and reduce the costs and health risks of this contamination.


Click here to learn more about how Enhanced Reductive Dechlorination works.

Similarities Between “Manhattan Project” Site Cleanup, Chlorinated Solvent Site Cleanup

More than fifty years after its final nuclear test, federal contractors are proceeding with a massive undertaking to clean up a site in New Mexico made famous by the “Manhattan Project.” The Los Alamos National Laboratory, which opened in 1943, was used to test and develop the atomic bombs that would later be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during the final months of World War II. Projects to address this enormous environmental liability had been moving at a slow pace until last month.

The Trinity bomb was the first test explosion of the famed "Manhattan Project," and the first explosion of its kind in history.
The Trinity test was the name of the first nuclear detonation conducted on July 16, 1945, as part of the famed “Manhattan Project,” and the first explosion of its kind in history.

In June, the New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) agreed on a Consent order to expedite all remaining work on legacy waste management from the laboratory. With this new Consent Order in place, federal contractors are now working on remediating the south facing slopes of the Los Alamos Canyons. Although this project involves a different type of contamination than the dry cleaning solvents we at EnviroForensics manage on a daily basis, there are similarities that we couldn’t help but notice.

Nuclear explosion tests at the site halted in 1965, and very little has been done up to this point to address the public health risks left behind by the years of nuclear testing. At the time of the nuclear testing, there wasn’t much known about the adverse effects of being exposed to high concentrations of radiation and nuclear fallout. As medical researchers eventually realized the dangers of these toxins, the concern for public health increased, as well as the necessity for a remedial solution. Similarly, PCE was once the leading solvent used in commercial dry cleaning. After 2007 when it was classified as a Group 2A carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, it started losing momentum and began to be replaced by less toxic solvent alternatives.  Like the nuclear scenario described above, commensurate health studies on PCE didn’t come until long after its widespread use. Past handlers of these toxic substances in both cases had no way of knowing their practices could have such long-lasting potential health effects.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and Leslie Groves at remains of the Trinity test in September 1945. Courtesy: TIME
J. Robert Oppenheimer and Leslie Groves at remains of the Trinity test in September 1945. Courtesy: TIME

The DOE has chosen excavation to help complete this part of the legacy waste cleanup. As we’ve mentioned in previous blogs, excavation is one of the most straight-forward ways to rid a Site of many contaminants, including PCE.  Crews at the “Manhattan Project” site will dig in five separate zones in a 1 acre area along the south facing slopes, with the objective of removing 125 cubic yards of contaminated soil. Similar to the manner PCE contaminated soil is handled, the crews in New Mexico will prepare the soil and approve it for transport to a hazardous waste facility.

The south facing slopes of the Los Alamos Canyon is not considered a residential area, but the ultimate goal of this cleanup is to reduce the concentration of the contaminants (in this case Arsenic and Plutonium) to the EPA’s mandated “residential” levels. The hope is to redevelop the area around the Los Alamos National Laboratory site with commercial and residential real estate. Often times, the aim of a PCE site cleanup is also to remove the potential health risks for future tenants that have redevelopment on their minds.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

NMED estimates the rest of the Los Alamos National Laboratory legacy cleanup will take another 19 years to finish and cost up to $3.8 billion. Chlorinated solvent cleanups often take years and cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. In both cases, it seems an immediate or proactive approach is always the best way to go about addressing these problems.  Quicker action leads to more cost-effective solutions and a healthier environment for all.


New VRP Guidelines Aim to Put More Projects in Motion

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is hoping some changes to the Voluntary Remediation Agreements participants in its Voluntary Remediation Program (VRP) execute in order to join the VRP will get projects that have stalled for years off the ground. A recent report from an Indianapolis news station indicated hundreds of sites participating in the VRP have gone unchecked for years, insinuating that the responsible parties (RPs) had been using the VRP as a loophole to delay cleanup while not having to face the legal ramifications of their inaction. In contrast to the State Cleanup program, the VRP offers its participants protection against future IDEM liability with a covenant not to sue at the completion of the cleanup. The new guidelines offer a more detailed set of benchmarks and deadlines in order to root out this problem.

Under the old guidelines, if an RP wanted to take part in the VRP, it had to have its chemical plume well-defined. The new requirements allow for a 2-year window for the plume to be fully characterized and investigated after signing the Voluntary Remediation Agreement (VRA). The IDEM’s new deadline for investigation and site characterization should force RPs to address their environmental issues or lose the protections against liability that the VRP provides in contrast to the State Cleanup program.

Also, a new, clear deadline has been set for the development and submission of a Remedial Work Plan (RWP). A responsible party and its environmental consultant have 180 days to conduct their initial and further site investigations and come up with a RWP to put into action. If they don’t comply with this deadline, the responsible party runs the risk of being taken out of the VRP, opening them up to possible lawsuits. However, the updated rules are not completely inflexible: once an RWP has been submitted, stakeholders and VRP project managers are given a little more leeway. Deadlines will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

For years, companies responsible for hazardous chemical contaminations have hid behind and took advantage of a program that’s number one priority is to protect human health and cleanup contamination while offering a layer of protection to its participants. The hope is with these new modifications to the VRAs, the prior inaction by VRP participants should be prevented from happening.