There has been big drama this week on Virginia’s environmental front over Dominion Virginia Power’s plans to dewater and seal coal ash pits at two of its power plants.
On March 9, after three anti-Dominion demonstrations during which 25 young people were arrested, a dramatic deal was struck with environmentalists.
Dominion agreed to toughen the standards for the pollutants in the treated coal ash wastewater it will dump into the James River at its Bremo Power Station under a permit granted by the state in January.
The agreement with the James River Association calls for Dominion to increase monitoring of the effluent and fish populations affected by it. In exchange, the river group agreed not to sue to rescind Dominion’s permit.
A similar deal was announced the same day involving the Possum Point Power Station’s coal ash ponds near Dumfries. Treated coal ash wastewater will be dumped into Quantico Creek, which flows into the Potomac River.
The Possum Point deal, however, isn’t quite the public relations coup that Bremo seems to be. Maryland and the Potomac River Keeper Network aren’t backing down from their opposition to the wastewater dumping.
So what’s going here? Why toughen permits after they have been granted?
The usual suspect, of course, would be Dominion, but not exactly in this case. Following big coal ash spills in Tennessee and North Carolina, the Environmental Protection Agency last year issued new rules and deadlines for disposing of coal ash.
Rather than wait, Dominion is charging ahead with a plan, reasoning that it would be better to get rid of the coal ash threat sooner. While that motive is admirable, Dominion also wants a plan on its terms.
Digging up the coal ash and placing it in sealed landfills inland would cost $3 billion, Dominion claims. The cheaper way would be to dewater its existing coal ash ponds, partially seal them and then treat the water before dumping it, still somewhat toxic, into streams where natural water flow would do the rest.
Environmentalists (especially young and effective ones), fishermen and sports enthusiasts were livid about the plan. Richmond gets its drinking water from the James. The recent catastrophe with potable water in Flint, Mich., came at exactly the wrong time. Dominion seemed shocked at the unexpected intensity of the public outcry, especially in Richmond where residents consider the scenic James a local treasure.
Making things worse is the cozy relationship Dominion has with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, known for its light touch with industry.
At a January hearing, six members of the State Water Control Board, which oversees Department of Environmental Quality water activities, barely asked any questions before granting permits for both Bremo and Possum Point. The only member who did was Roberta Kellam, who asked why there was such urgency to approve Dominion’s permits when more time was needed.
Department of Environmental Quality officials recommended approval, and the board obliged. In the hearing room, one could barely tell the difference between the gray-suited Dominion officials in the room and those from the Department of Environmental Quality.
No information was available about who the board members are. Of the seven board members, the Department of Environmental Quality website lists the department address as their mailing address. When I asked for their bios, it took a day for the Department of Environmental Quality to provide them. As Brad Lane, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center told, me, the water board’s policies “are as a clear as mud.”
The big question is why the Department of Environmental Quality didn’t make these changes before recommending that the permits be approved.
That’s troublesome, but the good news is that there’s a new sheriff in town in the form of effective and well-organized green activist groups. One of the most vigorous has been the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition made up of students from the University of Mary Washington, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia and others.
On March 7, 35 of them occupied Department of Environmental Quality headquarters, leading to 17 arrests. The next day, at least three members tried to disrupt a Virginia Institute of Marine Science meeting with Department of Environmental Quality chief David Paylor. A couple of hours later, nine members pounced on a Dominion informational meeting in Henrico County.
As cadre, Virginia Student Environmental Coalition members are formidable. They are committed, well informed and can use social media to conjure up an effective demonstration faster than you can say Harry Potter.
Peter Galuszka is a regular contributor to All Opinions Are Local. Would you like to contribute? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.