Longtime Dumfries residents Dan and Patty Marrow and their neighbor, Brian West, say they love living on Possum Point, the scenic peninsula where Quantico Creek meets the Potomac River.
But their proximity to Dominion's power plant, located at the tip of the peninsula, has them increasingly concerned about the safety of their drinking water.
Like many Possum Point residents, West and the Marrows draw their water from private wells, which they fear are showing signs of contamination from metals associated with coal ash.
Since hearing about Dominion Virginia Power's plans to drain and close their coal-ash ponds late last year, both the Marrows and West have had their drinking water tested several times with conflicting results.
Tests conducted last month by the Virginia Department of Health said the Marrows' water "does not represent a health hazard" despite traces of cobalt and strontium, both of which have been tied to coal ash.
The health department found aluminum, boron, cobalt, lead, manganese, nickel and strontium in West's well. All are contaminants associated with coal ash, but the health department said the levels detected are low enough "to meet requirements for public drinking water."
A second test of West's well, however, was less reassuring.
Results from the Virginia Cooperative Extension, which has its samples analyzed by Virginia Tech, showed lead levels in West's water between four and 10 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" for lead, which is 15 parts per billion. West's water showed lead as high as 120 parts per billion.
Both families have now switched to bottled water, which they say is cumbersome and expensive. Worse, the confusing and conflicting test results have left them feeling angry, betrayed and impatient for answers.
West has offered to sell his property to Dominion and is considering a lawsuit. "We need a source of good drinking water and we need it now," he said. "We're tired of being strung along."
But the Marrows say they don't want to leave what they call "their forever home" on Possum Point. Since moving in 20 years ago, the couple has expanded the house and remodeled extensively, even adding an in-ground pool.
This year, however, the pool was filled with water from a neighbor who is connected to the county water line. The Marrows wanted to make sure the water is safe for their two granddaughters, ages 2 and 7. Even so, the couple recently learned the girls won't be coming to swim this summer because their son, a hydrogeologist, is too worried about exposing them to coal ash.
"We've worked hard for our entire lives, saved and saved and saved to pay off this home," Patty Marrow said. "They've contaminated our dream."
WORRISOME WELL TESTS
There are two drinking water wells within 1,000 feet of the Possum Point coal-ash ponds and another 22 within 1,500 feet. Talk of testing the wells for contamination began last year, when the Prince William Board of Supervisors were told of Dominion's plans to close their coal-ash ponds. At the request of the supervisors, the state health department agreed to test residents' wells at no cost.
As of this week, six wells belonging to Possum Point residents have been tested. All show the presence of various contaminants that have been associated with coal ash but not at levels that exceed various federal guidelines for public drinking water. Also, state officials cannot say the coal ash is to blame, according to health department spokesman Dwayne Roadcap.
"What we know is that groundwater does not flow toward the private wells and the levels [of contaminants] we found do not present a health risk based on available data," he said.
What was in the wells? According to state reports, all six showed levels of strontium, which is linked to anemia and cancer in high concentrations. Four also showed traces of cobalt, which is linked to health effects on the blood, heart and thyroid.
Four wells showed levels of lead ranging from 1.6 to 10.4 parts per billion. The EPA "action level" for lead is 15 parts per billion. But lead is a neurotoxin considered hazardous to children at any level, which is why it prompted a special note in the health department reports: "There is no known safe level of lead in a child's blood," the reports said. "Hence, the U.S. EPA has set the maximum contaminant level at zero because lead can be harmful even at low exposure levels."
One test showed traces of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen made famous by environmental activist Erin Brockovich. But the report notes the level is below California's limit of .05 milligrams per liter, the "most conservative" hexavalent chromium standard in the U.S.
Still, the state stopped short of declaring any of wells "safe," which is a determination only the well owner can make, Roadcap said.
"The homeowner must decide whether the federal drinking water standard represents an acceptable risk," Roadcap said. "There are treatment devices that can distill the water or treat it through reverse osmosis to improve the water quality if the owner does not view it favorably."
'DON'T DRINK THE WATER'
West got a different answer, however, from Virginia Cooperative Extension volunteer Elizabeth Ward, who helped him interpret his results from Virginia Tech. The test showed West's water between four and 10 times the EPA's "action level" for lead.
"Don't drink the water is what I'm telling you," said Ward, a retired chemical engineer who serves on the Prince William Soil and Conservation Board. "Absolutely, your [water is] above the safe limits [for lead]."
But neither Ward nor Roadcap could say whether the coal-ash ponds are to blame for contaminating the residents' wells. High lead levels can be attributed to several factors, including eroding pipes, Ward said.
Also, the Possum Point residents' wells are drilled into shallow aquifers, which are especially vulnerable to contamination.
That's why West and the Marrows now wonder if Dominion's release in April 2015 of 27.5 million gallons of water from one of Dominion's five coal-ash ponds might be to blame. The water was drained into a natural pond directly adjacent to their properties, known as the "beaver pond." West's property line cuts into the pond.
"They've flooded my property with toxins, so I'm left with a completely distressed piece of real estate," West told the board of supervisors Tuesday. "I can't drink the water and I cannot have the contaminants filtered out of the soil. Even if the water is drained, the contaminants will still be there."
Board Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, said the county would pay to test West and the Marrows' wells again, to try to rule out whether the residents' plumbing or the water itself is to blame. But Stewart acknowledged that the additional tests won't necessarily determine if the contaminants are coming from coal ash.
"If it is in the wells, then there is the question of what's causing it," Stewart said.
West said he welcomes the additional testing but is "confident" the lead is not coming from his pipes.
First reported by InsideNoVa, that 2015 release is now being investigated by the EPA as a possible violation of the federal Clean Water Act, according to Bill Hayden, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Dominion recently assembled a $35 million temporary water-treatment facility on the banks of its largest coal-ash impoundment, pond D, to treat its remaining 220 million gallons of coal-ash water before releasing it into Quantico Creek. Dominion officials say the water released in 2015 did not require artificial treatment because it was drawn from the top of pond E, which they said was permissible under an existing permit written to allow storm water to be drained from the pond.
Dominion officials also say there's no proof the coal-ash ponds have contaminated residents' wells either through the 2015 release or the decades of activity at the power plant, which burned coal to make electricity from 1948 to 2003.
The utility "understands the residents' frustrations" over conflicting tests results, Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson said in an email, but cannot "vouch for the expertise, authenticity or methodology" of the tests.
"We will be reaching out to each of our neighbors with well issues shortly to discuss their concerns and the various well water test results," Richardson said.
LAWMAKER: HALT THE WORK
State Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat who represents the Possum Point residents, says he's worried about his constituents' wells and wants Dominion to do more tests, and collect more data, before state regulators grant the utility permission to bury the coal ash at Possum Point.
In the coming months, Dominion is expected to apply for a solid waste permit to consolidate tons of drained coal ash in pond D, where it would be topped with a synthetic liner and two feet of soil. Dominion has pledged to monitor the buried ash for at least 30 years through an expanded network of groundwater monitoring wells.
Surovell said he finds the results of the recent well tests "disturbing" and wants state regulators to put the brakes on Dominion's plans to dispose of the waste onsite.
"What we're trying to decide now is how we're going to store this toxic materials for the next couple of centuries," Surovell said. "We only have one chance to get this right."
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