Category Archives: Environment

Bacon Bits: Two Reasons to Be Worried, and One Reason Not

Be afraid, very afraid. How frequent is cell phone use? According to a team of Old Dominion University researchers tallying seat belt use, some 4% of drivers they spot are on the phone or texting. So reports the Daily Press. Clearly, cell phone use is a problem. But I would argue that texting (which I never do) is far worse than yakking on the phone (which I do do… occasionally). Both may be a distraction, but the one requires drivers to take their eyes off the road, while the other doesn’t. If distractions are the issue, then the General Assembly should ban husbands and wives driving in the same car together. There’s nothing like a side-seat driver to grab one’s attention and increase the risk of accidents!

Virginia lost a big one. I have long hoped that the Wallops Space Flight facility might engender the rise of a space industry in Virginia. But the odds of the Old Dominion developing a critical mass in this industry of the future suffered a significant setback yesterday when Boeing announced that it would relocate the headquarters of its Space and Launch division from Arlington to Titusville, on Florida’s Space Coast. States the aerospace giant: “Looking to the future, this storied Florida space community will be the center of gravity for Boeing’s space programs as we continue to build our company’s leadership beyond gravity.”

Scary ignorance about coal ash. Coal ash is a potential hazard to human health, but the risks it poses are extremely low level. Unfortunately, an article in the Prince William Times, describing how Governor Ralph Northam signed a coal ash regulation bill into law, incorporates some of the hysterical rhetoric that has infiltrated our discourse. The article refers to the coal combustion residue as “toxic coal ash” and describes it as “composed of lead, mercury, cobalt, arsenic, hexavalent chromium and other heavy metals, many of which are carcinogens.” In truth, coal ash is comprised mainly of rock mixed with coal that is not removed in the coal cleaning process and does not combust in boilers used for electric generation. The ash does contain trace amounts of all the aforesaid metals, which can leach in minute quantities into ground water, but is toxic only when it rises above certain levels. If the ash itself were toxic, then the new law requiring utilities to recycle at least 25 percent of it into cinderblocks and pavers would the greatest folly indeed.

The Waters Increased Greatly upon the Earth

Over the past decade or so, as I traveled with my family to Sandbridge Beach, I watched in amazement, and a touch of disbelief, as large, upscale houses sprouted from the landscape that was once flat, treeless farmland.

The development was Asheville Park.  It was approved in 2004 for 499 homes on 474 acres. The construction slowed noticeably during the 2008-2010 downturn, but then picked up.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit, deluging the area with rain. Asheville Park became impassable for days and homes and cars flooded. Incredibly, “All of this area was approved for rezonings without looking at stormwater,” according to Barbara Henley, a member of city council. (She was not on the council when the development was approved.) Of the 35 proffers associated with the approval, there was no mention of stormwater and how to control it. Hurricane Matthew demonstrated that the pipes and outfalls were too small and a retention lake was shallower than planned, leading to flooding.

The residents of the development have been up in arms, demanding that the city take action. After all, these were homes for which they had paid several hundred thousand dollars and being flooded was not supposed to be part of the deal. The city has come up with a long-term plan to alleviate flooding, estimated to cost $35 million. The immediate fixes will cost $11 million. The city has reached an agreement with the developer in which the approved number of houses will be reduced by 44 and the developer will donate land for the construction of a retention pond by the city. In addition to a retention pond, the work will include the construction of a gated weir and a pump station. Finally, new building permits will not be issued for the next phase of the development until specific parts of the drainage system are fixed.

There is not much else the city can do about Asheville Park. The developer still has the right to construct more than double the number of houses currently there. However, the city has obviously learned from this experience and is taking steps to take sea level rise into consideration when evaluating future developments. Continue reading

Rider E Case Shows Many Flaws With This Process

Key operating data on some Dominion Virginia coal plants, important to the Rider E case but hidden from us. Source: Office of Attorney General testimony.  Click for larger view. 

Dominion Energy Virginia’s pending application for a new charge on electric bills for coal ash remediation is both a fairly routine request and an illustration of what is deeply wrong with Virginia’s electricity regulation.

When the major investor-owned utilities negotiated a return to regulation in 2007, the ability to create and collect these stand-alone add-on charges (“rate adjustment clauses”) was one of their demands.  It was the other major Virginia utility, Appalachian Power Company, that was most concerned about the ability to collect the cost of environmental compliance and it has had a rider on its bills for that purpose for some time.  Continue reading

VA Energy Regulatory Conference All About Carbon

The Hon. Bernard McNamee, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

WILLIAMSBURG — “The environmentalists don’t want to admit when they’ve won, but they’ve already won.”

That line was delivered by Joseph A. Rosenthal, principal attorney at Connecticut’s Office of Consumer Counsel, during a discussion Thursday on the status electricity grid modernization efforts in his state and several others.  It was a part of a day-and-a-half National Regulatory Conference and William and Mary’s law school which had several nominal topics but was really about carbon regulation.  Continue reading

Dominion Energy Joins Consortium Demanding Climate Change Legislation

Image credit: Power for the People VA

I am not making this up.  Yesterday, Dominion Energy joined a newly launched coalition of more than a dozen major corporations and environmental groups – CEO Climate Dialog.  This organization will urge Congress to pass climate change legislation.  Example members of the group include BP – an oil and gas company, Citibank, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Exelon – a power company and The Nature Conservancy, an environmental organization. Continue reading

Dominion Announces Support for Carbon Tax

Dominion Energy has joined a coalition of 13 corporations and four leading environmental groups in support of a carbon tax and other measures designed to reduce CO2 emissions. The group, known as the CEO Climate Dialogue, has set a goal of achieving economy-wide reductions of 80% or more by 2050, with aggressive near- and mid-term emission reductions commensurate with that goal.

The group “aims to build bipartisan support for climate policies that will increase regulatory and business certainty, reduce climate risk, and spur investment and innovation needed to meet science-based emissions reduction targets,” according to a press release issued yesterday.

The CEO Dialogue listed six principles to guide federal legislation: Continue reading

Anthropogenic Global Warming Is Real. Now What?

Four hundred and fifteen. US News & World Report is reporting that the amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere reached more than 415 parts per million. The article quotes research from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography from May 11.  Historical levels of CO2 in the atmosphere were measured through core ice samples prior to 1958 and directly from the Mauna Loa Observatory from 1958 onward. Take a close look at the graph accompanying this article. At first it’s hard to see the vertical line streaking skyward at the right edge. That’s CO2 emissions. From historical peaks oscillating between 250 ppm and 300 ppm over the last 800,000 years to over 415 ppm today. If that isn’t sufficiently startling, the annual peaks over the past few years: 2015 – 405, 2016 – 409, 2017 – 413, 2018 – 413, 2019 – 415 (so far).

Nobody wants anthropogenic global warming to be true but it is true. Continue reading

So Much for Millennials Saving the Planet

Are Millennials really different from older generations when it comes to transportation preferences? Is the younger generation, supposedly enlightened about the need to combat global warming, truly embracing bicycles and buses and the sharing economy over owning and driving their own automobiles? Here in Virginia, billions of dollars of mass transit and other infrastructure spending hinge on the answer.

Christopher R. Knittel with the MIT Sloan School of Management and Elizabeth Murphy with Genser Energy — both of whom are concerned about global warming — tested Millennials’ vehicle-ownership preferences by comparing vehicle ownership and vehicle miles traveled (VMT). They published their findings in a new paper, “Generational Trends in Vehicle Ownership and Use: Are Millennials any Different?”

The disappointed verdict: “Results suggest that while Millennial vehicle ownership and use may be lower early on in life, these differences are only temporary and, in fact, lifetime vehicle use is likely to be greater.” Continue reading

Is the Goal Cutting CO2 or Imposing a Tax?

While it would have been a popular step with his political base, and one he was expected to take, Governor Ralph Northam may have been smart to pass on seeking to veto state budget language preventing Virginia membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.  Continue reading

Virginia: Pretty Good Grades for Clean Air

On the subject of the competitiveness of large versus small metros (see previous post), one metric for gauging the quality of life is air pollution. All other things being equal, people would prefer to live in places with clean air than places with dirty air. Ozone remains a problem in Arlington, Fairfax and Henrico Counties, according to the just-published American Lung Association “State of the Air” report. But Virginia localities rate pretty well for particle pollution.

I’m not sure how heavily “clean air” weighs in peoples’ minds compared to other factors such as employment opportunities, housing costs, traffic congestion and the like. It’s not as if the air in Fairfax and Arlington, which rate F for ozone, is remotely as noxious as that of Beijing or Kolkota. Once air quality reaches a tolerable level, people may not place the same value on incremental gains. I don’t recall anyone ever citing air quality as a reason to live in one metro over another. Still, clean air is a factor, even if a small one.

Virginia Cancels Trophy Rockfish Season

A photo from better fishing days

Update. On April 8 I wrote an article for this blog titled, “Virginia Trophy Rockfish Season under Threat of Cancellation.” Yesterday the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) voted unanimously to cancel Virginia’s trophy rockfish season. VMRC believes that the species has been overfished for the last six years and the stock of migratory striped bass is now below sustainable levels. In Virginia the recreational catch of striped bass declined from 368,000 fish in 2010 to less than 52,000 last year.

Continue reading

Toxic Chemicals and Relative Risk — an Alien Concept to Virginians

The chemical structure of 1,2,4 trimethylbenzene, of which 132,000 pounds were released into Virginia’s air and waterways in 2017. Are we safe? Should you be worried? Should government spend billions to “do” something?

The West Point paper mill, one of Virginia’s 10 largest emitters of toxic materials in 2017, emitted 7.6% fewer toxic materials in 2017 compared to the year before, reports the Daily Press today. All told, the paper mill released 852,914 pounds — mostly menthol, ammonia, and hydrochloric acid — into the air and water. That news got me to thinking…

There are a couple of obvious story lines that could be extracted from the data, which comes from the release of 2017 numbers from the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). One, which the Daily Press adopts, is that West Point, like other major manufacturers, has done an excellent job over the years in grinding out steady reductions in the volume of toxic chemicals it releases into the environment.

The other story line is the degree to which Virginians are absolutely insensate to the massive volume of chemicals pumped into the air and water. The TRI lists 138 toxic chemicals from 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene to zinc compounds — totaling 34.5 million pounds in all. These chemicals vary widely in their emission volumes, their toxicity, and the speed with which they break down or are otherwise rendered harmless.

But one thing these compounds have in common is that no one is losing sleep over them. Continue reading

Extreme Weather Event, Extreme Weather Event, Go Away…

Now, we’re told, we have a new reason to fear climate change: Record rainfalls are straining the capacity of combined-sewer overflow (CSO) systems in Richmond, Lynchburg and Alexandria. In heavy rains, the antiquated systems, which combine stormwater runoff and wastewater, release untreated wastewater into the river.

“We’re on the frontlines dealing with climate change,” Grace LeRose, program manager for the Richmond public utilities, told The Virginia Mercury. “We’re seeing bigger and more frequent storms that are going to tax our system even more.”

In  May and June the city experienced 23 inches of rain, the highest ever recorded. That year, contends the Virginia Mercury, was indicative of a longer-term trend. There was a 33% increase in the number of heavy rainstorms in Virginia, and an 11% increase from the largest storms between 1948 and 2011.

Of course, you can make statistics say anything you want them to, so I thought I’d do some checking. Continue reading

Is Winter Coming For Virginia Pipeline Projects?

The Mountain Valley Pipeline route on Brush Mountain, July 18, 2018. (Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times)

The building season is here, but for developers of Virginia’s two hotly-contested natural gas pipelines, activity is back in the government agencies and courthouses.  The construction sites remain largely silent, delays running up the ultimate cost of the projects, including the cost of failure.

Here is my (probably flawed) attempt at a status report.  And you thought Game of Thrones is a complicated plot.  Continue reading

Northam Waters Down Virginia’s Livestock Fencing Plan

Northam Administration vs The Chesapeake Bay. Two disturbing facts were brought to light last week. First, a survey of two agriculture-intense Virginia counties found that the effort to reduce agricultural pollution by fencing off farm streams from cattle is far behind schedule. Second, our supposedly progressive governor put forth a very watered down Watershed Improvement Plan that effectively eliminates the livestock fencing goals in the Commonwealth.

Cows do more than fart and burp. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, raised more than a few eyebrows when her New Green Deal included measures to curb the greenhouse gas effects of farting and burping cows. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez whimsically referenced the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide as digestive byproducts from many farm animals, especially cattle. While these emissions are a legitimate issue, a bovine prescription for Gas-X and Rolaids would not solve the problem. The production of meat in general, and beef in particular, has a sizable negative impact on the environment. Every step in raising, slaughtering, packaging and shipping meat adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Across the globe animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (14-18%) than transportation (13.5%). However, the environmental impact of animal agriculture doesn’t end with greenhouse gas emissions. A 1400-pound Holstein steer produces 115 pounds of manure per day or about 21 tons per year. Some of this prodigious amount of manure finds its way from cows and steers to farm creeks and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. The manure contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus which cause excess algae growth de-oxygenating the bay’s water. Many consider animal waste the biggest problem confronting the Chesapeake Bay. Continue reading