by James A. Bacon
A crowd estimated at 2oo strong by the Richmond Times-Dispatch (and 700 by the protesters themselves) gathered at the state Capitol grounds Saturday to denounce the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for granting Dominion Virginia Power permits to discharge treated coal-ash waste water into Quantico Creek and the James River.
Chanting “Coal ash kills. No dumping, no spills,” protesters demanded to see Governor Terry McAuliffe. Police arrested nine after they ignored the restrictions regarding where and when they could gather in Capitol Square.
“Dominion now has a proven track record for negligence and misrepresenting their actions to both state and federal agencies,” said Tatiane Pena of No ACP in a press release issued after the event. “Their promises to the public are worthless. It is the job of the Department of Environmental Quality to ensure that our waterways and communities are protected, and the current permits contain zero mechanism for enforcement. Nor do they require Dominion [to] treat the wastewater to the highest standard possible.”
Organized by No ACP, Collective X and Richmond Resistance, the protest represents the left wing of the environmental movement. The mainstream Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which has appealed the permits, has been much more restrained in its rhetoric.
Let’s set aside for a moment the inflammatory tone of the protesters’ sloganeering. (Dominion’s coal ash, which will be consolidated in capped ponds and drained of water, will not “kill” anyone. The treated waste water when released, not “dumped” or “spilled,” into the river, might kill aquatic life under extreme low-water conditions within a narrow plume downstream.)
Instead, let’s look instead at the idea that Dominion should treat the coal-ash waste water to “drinking water” standards. That doesn’t sound on its face to be unreasonable. Nobody wants big industry putting dirty water into our rivers and streams, especially not if they’re laden with heavy metals like mercury and arsenic that can be toxic to humans and aquatic life at sufficiently high concentrations. But are “drinking water” standards really what’s required to keep our rivers and streams safe, or would that level of stringency be overkill?
Sadly, despite considerable attention given to the coal-ash issue across the state (including one of my own articles in this blog), I have seen nothing that explains what’s safe and what’s not. For the most part, all that gets replicated is sound-bite claims and counter-claims. In my article, “How Clean Is Clean Enough,” I went into greater depth than anyone else on exactly how Dominion proposes to treat the coal ash waste water and why the SELC argues that treatment is deficient. But even I neglected to inform readers what concentration of various chemicals and compounds is considered safe for humans and aquatic wildlife, and by whom. Presumably, environmentalists, industry groups, the EPA and DEQ all have different ideas of what constitutes safe levels. How far apart are they? Have we moved 99 yards down the field and we’re battling over that last yard, or are we butting heads at the 50-yard line with a long way to go?
And a related set of questions: How much would it cost to meet stricter standards? Are we talking millions of dollars? Tens of millions? Or hundreds of millions? What are the trade-offs in terms of costs and benefits?
I put in queries to Dominion, DEQ and SELC for their input but did not get responses in time for this blog post. I’ll get back to readers when I find out more.There are currently no comments highlighted.