Category Archives: Water-waste water

Petersburg’s Other Fiasco

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Petersburg City Hall

by James A. Bacon

Poor Petersburg. The economically depressed Southside city of 32,000 serves as a vivid warning of just about everything that can go wrong for a local government in Virginia. Not only is the city running a massive General Fund budget deficit, it is falling millions of dollars behind in the collection of revenues for its water system.

The heart of the problem is a botched rollout of a meter-reading system that was pitched as a low-risk way for the city to overhaul its aging infrastructure without a tax increase. The city contracted with systems-controls giant Johnson Controls to install meters that would transmit usage figures electronically, obviating the need to send employees door to door to collect the numbers. Supposedly, the overhaul would pay for itself through more accurate readings and personnel reductions.

But something went wrong. First, the $3.9 million project experienced overruns of $1.4 million, bringing the final cost to $5.3 million. Second, it didn’t work properly. A year and a half later, surely enough time to work out the kinks, some people are reporting that they haven’t received water bills for months, while others say they have been billed too often, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars.

City officials blame the vendor, Johnson Controls. Yesterday City Council voted to hire an outside attorney to pursue litigation against the company to seek remedy, and has asked for assistance from the Virginia State Police.

While it is possible that Johnson Controls bungled the installation of the meters (Full disclosure: I own 400 shares of Johnson Controls stock), the City of Petersburg’s track record and evidence in the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s reporting of the story suggest that the city itself might have contributed to the problem.

First, the article mentions that more than a fifth of the cost overrun came from a $300,000 change order the year after the contract signed. No mention of whether there might have been other change orders.

Second, the contract was negotiated by then-City Manager William E. Johnson III, under whose watch the city’s General Fund plunged into such chaos that City Council fired him. If his oversight of city books was dismal, the same might well have been true for his oversight of the contract.

Third, it’s not clear from published accounts that the billing problem can even be traced to the meters. Meters report water usage; they do not send out billing statements. Perhaps the billing problem arose from the integration of the meters with the billing process. If so, responsibility gets murky. A successful launch of the system would have required collaboration between Johnson Controls and the city administration.

Fourth, Mayor W. Howard Myers admitted that he and other council members were unaware that the project had experienced cost overruns, or that city administrators had approved Johnson Controls’ work months after the system went live and residents had began complaining about faulty billing. This is the same mayor who declared, after being informed that the city had closed the year with a 20% deficit, “I had no idea. I’m like, wow, where is this coming from?” This is not a mayor who is on top of things, and if he blames the vendor for the mayhem, there is no reason to take his appraisal very seriously.

Fifth, in February, Myers hired Paul Goldman, law partner of former state Del. Joseph Morrissey, to investigate the matter at the rate of $330 per hour. But the city terminated the contract before Goldman could complete his job — more money down the drain. (I would conjecture that Goldman couldn’t finish the job because he found the matter to be an indecipherable morass that would take far more time than anyone had initially imagined.)

The business of government is complicated — and getting ever more so. I admire the everyday citizens who dedicate their time to running for office, helping constituents and overseeing government. They don’t get paid enough for what they do. But many of them, especially in smaller jurisdictions, are ill equipped to master the complexities of the job. Frankly, it’s a wonder we don’t see more fiascos like Petersburg’s.

Bikes, Bees, Beauty

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by James A. Bacon

New York City has its High Line park built upon an abandoned, elevated freight rail line. The City of Richmond has its Low Line park, built underneath CSX Corp. railroad trestles.

In the seven years since opening to great fanfare, Manhattan’s High Line has attracted millions of visitors and inspired the construction of nearly 1,400 housing units along its two-mile route. By contrast, the opening of Richmond’s Low Line has been decidedly low key, and no one is expecting it to become a magnet for real estate development. But the Low Line could well become an integral part of Richmond’s park system and spur reclamation of the riverfront.

The vision for the $6 million project calls for flower plots with benches, covered walkways beneath the trestles, rain gardens along the Kanawha Canal, and trees shading HOW MANY?? hundred yards of bike path. Capital Trees, a not-for-profit organized to promote urban greening, has committed to fund the ongoing maintenance.

A year ago, the area was an overgrown ruin, neglected by CSX and the City of Richmond, which shared ownership of the land for more than a century. Located in the flood plain, the property had little value. No one had reason to invest in it or even care about it.

“There was no advocate for this area. It was blighted,” says Susan Robertson, co-chair of Capital Trees. “People would ride on the canal boats from the manicured, renovated canal walk [in Shockoe Bottom] and encounter a scene with invasive weeds and trees. From June through November, you couldn’t see the canal [from the land].”

When the Low Line is complete, it will knit together a cluster of recreational assets including the Richmond terminus of the 52-mile Capital Trail, the Great Shiplock Park, the Kanawha Canal, and Chapel Island with its trails and kayak launch. The Low Line also will provide an amenity for the 1,500 residents of Tobacco Row apartments and condominiums on the far side of the flood wall.

“It’s so great,” Victoria Hedegger, a Tobacco Row resident, said recently while walking her new-born in a stroller. “It was nice before. Now it’s even nicer. [The gardens] make the trail so much more attractive.”

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Capital Trees originated as a collaboration between the Richmond region’s four garden clubs in the expectation that they could undertake projects with greater impact if they worked together. The new generation of garden club leaders aren’t content with traditional beautification projects. They are exploring the intersection of beautification, conservation, storm water management and urban place making.

In its early incarnation, the group worked with city officials to reform the urban tree-planting program. Then it spear-headed the building of rain gardens on 14th street in Richmond’s downtown to control storm water runoff. With each success, Capital Trees’ projects became more ambitious.

In 2011 Lynda Miller, head of New York City’s Central Park Conservancy, visited Richmond to describe how volunteers had reclaimed part of Central Park. “She told use we could tackle big, important projects that can make our lives better, recalls Clare Osdene Schapiro, a Richmond Times-Dispatch writer active in the organization. Continue reading

Maryland Drops Coal Ash Appeal

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The state of Maryland has dropped its appeal of permits granted to Dominion Virginia Power for discharging treated water from its Possum Point Power Station coal ash ponds into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River.

“Maryland is supportive of recent agreements in Virginia to increase wastewater treatment protections and monitoring protocols,” Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the environment, said in a statement. “We are engaged in and encouraged by the ongoing discussions with Virginia and Dominion to do even more testing for fish tissue, water quality and sediment in the river beyond the current testing and monitoring in current or soon-to-be-proposed permits.”

Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the department, cited Dominion’s commitments to enhanced treatment of the water drawn from coal ash ponds and to specifications that meet or exceed Maryland’s water quality standards, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He continued:

Moreover, Virginia DEQ has pledged to draft a stringent and comprehensive solid waste permit for the Dominion facility that incorporates all federal requirements. Virginia DEQ has further discussed its intent to engage Maryland during this permitting process as groundwater monitoring and surface water monitoring safeguards are included to protect Quantico Creek and the Potomac River.

The only group persisting in an appeal of the coal ash water-discharge permits is the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

Bacon’s bottom line: The big remaining issue is how Dominion will dispose of the coal ash itself. Dominion has applied for permits to consolidate the material in capped pits on-site, asserting that the alternative preferred by environmentalists — trucking it to lined landfills — would cost $3 billion more. The statements from Maryland’s Department of the Environment suggests that Maryland has taken part in intensive, behind-the-scenes negotiations with Virginia DEQ, as Virginia regulators decide whether to grant the solid waste permits or not.

— JAB

Eb Tide for Bay Pollution

Ches_BayMeasures enacted since 2009 to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment have driven down the level of pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay, according to computer simulations by the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership of federal and state agencies and not-for-profits dedicated to cleaning up the bay. The results between 2009 and 2015: nitrogen down 8%, phosphorus down 20%, and sediment down 7%.

Practices are currently in place to achieve 31 percent of the nitrogen reductions, 81 percent of the phosphorus reductions and 48 percent of the sediment reductions necessary to attain applicable water quality standards as compared to 2009, the year before the Environmental Protection Agency established the Bay Total Maximum Daily Loads, states a Chesapeake Bay Program annual report.

“There is good news here,” responded Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker , “but a lot of work remains before we can declare success. Pollution continues to flow from those city streets and farms that do not have controls in place. And while improved, discharges of sewage to public waters continue in some jurisdictions.”

— JAB

Hysteria Level Rising over Coal Ash

hysteriaThe debate over coal ash disposal is reaching a hysterical pitch as leftist groups peddle gross inaccuracies in “education” sessions to ignorant audiences not equipped to sift fact from fiction. An example comes from a Tuesday “teach in” hosted by Divest U.Va. and the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, which was reported uncritically by the Cavalier Daily:

“Coal ash contains chemicals that are super unsafe for humans, including arsenic, which is not a healthy thing to be putting into our water,” [first-year student Ian] Ware said. “You shouldn’t be putting arsenic and drinking water together.”

Nobody proposes putting arsenic and drinking water together. Yes, coal ash does contain trace elements of arsenic measured in parts per billion but (a) Dominion Virginia Power will reduce arsenic to levels lower than the Environmental Protection Agency has determined to be safe for humans and aquatic life at the point of discharge into the river except under extreme drought conditions, (b) Dominion’s treated wastewater will be diluted by about 3,000 times the volume of river water during periods of average flow in the James River before it reaches a drinking water intake 50 miles downstream, (c) Dominion will release treated wastewater into the river for a period of roughly a year, while standards are set at levels that presuppose that people will consume the water over a 70-year life span as their sole source of drinking water, and (d) water drawn from the river undergoes municipal water treatment before anyone drinks it.

Other than that, the statement was entirely reasonable.

— JAB

Drinkable Water for Humans — or Fish?

James River carp do just fine in water that don't meet drinking water standards.

James River carp do just fine in water that doesn’t meet human drinking water standards.

by James A. Bacon

State regulators have taken heat recently for permits they issued Dominion Virginia Power to release treated wastewater from coal-ash ponds into the James River and Quantico Creek. The controversy has played out in the news as the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed an appeal to contest the permit and as protesters organized by No ACP rallied at Capitol Square to protest the “dumping” of “toxic” water into Virginia rivers.

SELC and No ACP are very different organizations, and they are demanding very different things. The main concern of the SELC, a mainstream environmental organization, is to ensure that treated wastewater released into Virginia waters meets the “fishable/swimmable” standard that protects aquatic life. The protesters, organized by local activist groups No ACP, Collective X and Richmond Resistance, want to hold Dominion and other utilities to a far stricter — and, arguably, entirely inappropriate — “drinkable” standard.

It’s easy for the public to conflate the two as part of a general critique of big utilities and  compliant regulators allowing the dumping of toxic pollution into Virginia waters. But that would be a huge mistake. Agree or disagree with their legal case, the SELC attorneys understand the issues at stake. By contrast, the activists’ mastery of the subject matter does not appear to exceed what they can write on placards and chant in slogans.

I will deal with the activists’ argument in this post so I can delve more deeply into the SELC case against the wastewater permits later.

According to the No ACP press release, the protesters’ demands are simple — “an immediate repeal of recent permits that would allow Dominion Power to dump millions of gallons of toxic coal ash wastewater into Virginia’s most treasured waterways.”

What standards should Dominion meet? “DEQ must rewrite these permits to require the use of best available technology and that the water be treated to undetectable levels of arsenic and other toxins before disposal,” states the press release. Speaking to the Times-Dispatch, protest organizer Tatiane McCormick made much the same point: The permits should be rewritten to require Dominion to discharge water into the rivers only if it meets (to use the T-D‘s words) “drinking water standards.” (No ACP did not respond to a Bacon’s Rebellion request for an interview.)

A  refresher: Coal ash is the residue from the combustion of coal. Dominion, Appalachian Power Co. and large industrial companies have been impounding the material, which contains heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, in large containment ponds for many years. Because the metals are typically chemically bound with clays and glasses, not free-floating, they are largely inert, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste.

Dominion, the first company in Virginia to respond to the new standards, plans to drain the water from the ponds and then cap them in order to prevent rainwater from percolating through. Dominion will treat the water in a multi-staged clean-up process before releasing it into the river. The DEQ permit allows the water to exceed safe levels at the point of entry into the river, relying upon dilution with river water to keep it within prescribed limits.

The state has two types of regulatory standards: one for drinking water, and one for fishable/swimmable water. Power plants and manufacturers are required to meet the fishable/swimmable standard for any effluent they release into rivers and streams. Under the U.S. regulatory regime, it is up to municipal water treatment plants, not power plants and manufacturers, to bring river water up to the drinking water standard, and they have invested billions of dollars in treatment facilities to do so.

Under its permit, Dominion will release a maximum of 1,500 gallons per minute of treated wastewater into the river, says Jason Williams, an environmental manager for the utility. River flow varies depending upon weather conditions, but on the day Williams spoke to Bacon’s Rebellion, it was running about 13.7 million gallons per minute. “If you treated the [coal ash] wastewater to drinking water quality,” says Williams, “it would immediately be rendered undrinkable by mixing with the river water.”

John R. Craynon, who manages the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES) at Virginia Tech, makes the same point. (ARIES is funded by the coal industry but the industry has no say in the selection of research projects, says Craynon.) Treating wastewater to a drinking water standard would be very expensive and a waste of effort, he says. “The moment the drinking water hits the stream, it’s no longer of the same quality.”

Bottom line: Compelling Dominion and other utilities to treat coal ash wastewater to drinking water standards would accomplish nothing. It would not render the river water safe for human consumption. The real question is whether Dominion’s permit will enable it to meet the swimmable/fishable standards that protect aquatic life. The SELC would like the permit to tighten the restrictions on mercury and arsenic. We will examine that issue in a subsequent post.

More Questions than Answers on Coal-Ash Waste Water Discharges

James River near Dominion's Bremo power plant. Photo credit: WTVR.

James River near Dominion’s Bremo power plant. Photo credit: WTVR.

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.