Stop stalling on Chesapeake fly ash

The signs were supposed to warn golfers that they were playing on a course "sculpted" with fly ash - a byproduct of burning coal that contains hazardous heavy metals.

Instead, visitors to the course off Centerville Turnpike in Chesapeake have been greeted with this: "Battlefield Golf Club is proud to be a Department of Environment Quality approved Beneficial Use Project. The course was constructed using fly ash allowing the vast elevation changes that make it unique to the Hampton Roads Area. We hope you enjoy playing 'The Battlefield.' "

That's a shot well off the green.

The only participant in construction of the controversial golf course to see a "beneficial use" was Dominion Virginia Power, which was able to unload 1.5 million tons of fly ash in a manner less stringent than if it had been deposited in a landfill.

The lax regulation and oversight - by the city and the state Department of Environmental Quality - have come back to haunt everyone involved, particularly nearby residents who live with the potential and the perception that the course is unsafe.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that the course didn't pose a risk to public health. But tests by consultants for the city found that groundwater beneath the course, built between 2002 and 2007, is contaminated with heavy metals leaching from the fly ash.

Dominion paid $6 million to extend city water lines to connect nearby residents who had been using wells. The company maintains there's nothing wrong with the use of fly ash, however.

Others - including Neil Wallace, a Williamsburg businessman who helped build the course - disagree. Wallace says in a lawsuit that fly ash led to his kidney cancer. His lawsuit is among a half-dozen, involving hundreds of people, now pending in Circuit Court.

Meanwhile, Chesapeake officials are working on what City Attorney Ron Hallman describes as a plan for "environmental protection and remediation" for the 216-acre golf course near Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field.

That work, like the progression of the lawsuits in the courts system, is going slowly.

Since 2008, the city has granted permission each year for the golf club to continue operating. Approval of a permanent clubhouse for the site has been withheld.

As part of the agreement with the city, the operators of the golf course had to erect those warning signs. Hallman told The Pilot's Scott Daugherty he saw nothing wrong with the wording, but DEQ recently raised concerns and the golf club has agreed to remove them.

All of this activity and non-activity - at City Hall, in the courts, on the golf course - avoids a genuine resolution.

The only responsible choice here is to remove the fly ash. It won't be cheap, and it won't occur without inconvenience to the people living nearby.

In the meantime, the city is on the hook for monitoring the area to ensure the contamination doesn't spread to the water table, to the Pocaty River, into the habitat and food chain.

The longer it delays, the worse the contamination will be, and the further it will spread.

And the more that everyone around the golf course will live with the fear that the perpetual watch isn't quite watchful enough.

The golf course is, as the signs indicated, unique to Hampton Roads. Chesapeake, Dominion Virginia Power, the DEQ and the EPA should be working harder and faster to remove its uniqueness, permanently.

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