In genteel Richmond, guerrilla theater is a rarity.
Yet on March 23, about 25 protesters, mostly young environmentalists, put on a comic show in front of the downtown headquarters of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. They brought a portable putting green, golf clubs and two golf carts with banners reading “DEQ Shuttle Service courtesy of Dominion.”
The target of the mockery was department director David K. Paylor, a 40-year veteran of the state’s regulatory apparatus that has long been soft on regulating big business. The protests followed reports by WAMU that in 2013 Paylor had accepted $2,300 in travel from Dominion Virginia Power to attend the famed Masters golf tournament in Georgia plus a night out at an Irish pub.
Paylor and the Department of Environmental Quality are in the thick of a controversial process of granting the powerful utility permits to permanently seal 11 coal ash ponds at four Dominion power stations. Permits have been approved for stations at Possum Point, about 30 miles south of the District near the Potomac River, and at Bremo, about 50 miles up the James River from Richmond. Next up are permits for power stations in Chesterfield and Chesapeake.
Dominion says it is trying to comply with new federal rules on coal ash. Critics charge that it is racing ahead to do so on its own terms and is using its clout with Paylor and others to get its way.
The utility could have planned to haul the coal ash out by truck or rail to inland landfills with no discharge into rivers. It claims the estimated $3 billion price tag is too expensive. Instead, the permits allow Dominion to dump waste with toxic arsenic and hexavalent chromium, among other nasty chemicals, into waters used for drinking, swimming and fishing.
Paylor was appointed to his post in 2006 by then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D), now a U.S. senator. He was reappointed by then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and again by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
Paylor declined to be interviewed, but he told Virginia Business magazine in 2012 that he prefers a light touch with regulation. “Both administrations [Kaine and McDonnell] were very focused on the fact that we have been the No. 1 state in which to do business.” He sees his role as a “problem solver,” he told the magazine.
Asked about the free Dominion golf outing, a department spokesman said that all department officials take the environment seriously.
Environmentalists have long been angered by what they see as the department’s coziness with Dominion and other large polluters. “We have no confidence that this agency will protect the public’s interest,” said Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. Rather than act as a guardian of water and air, the Department of Environmental Quality sees its mission as “issuing permits as fast as possible,” Besa said.
At a Jan. 14 meeting where the State Water Control Board issued permits for the Possum Point and Bremo power plants, it was hard to tell state officials from Dominion’s. The board asked few questions. Only one member voted no, saying she thought the permits were being rushed.
Last year, environmental groups cried foul when Dominion released 27.5 million gallons of untreated wastewater into Quantico Creek at Possum Point. Dominion admitted it was responsible only after it received a permit modification from the Department of Environmental Quality.
Faced with supplying a technical response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s federal Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by limiting the use of fossil fuels, the department turned to the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, a research outfit housed at Virginia Tech. The center has close ties to the state’s coal industry, and its advisory board includes coal and utility officials but no one from the environmental sector. A department spokesman said that it went to the center because it needed the $200,000 study fast and didn’t have time to bid the work.
Dominion, a generous political donor, is used to getting its way. Yet even Dominion seemed blindsided by the aggressive and well-organized public outcry over its coal ash plans. It worked out extraordinary legal deals with environmental groups and Prince William County to upgrade its commitment not to pollute at Bremo and Possum Point.
But that just raises more questions. Why didn’t the Department of Environmental Quality push for tougher permits in the first place? And why are Maryland regulators and its attorney general still balking at the Possum Point plan?
Meanwhile, protests continue. As Barbara Adams, a Richmond activist at the March protest, said, “We want to magnify DEQ’s relationship with Dominion and make sure there’s monitoring of Dominion.”
Peter Galuszka, a regular contributor to the All Opinions Are Local blog, is a reporter in Richmond.