Virginia’s Water Quality Improving… Virginia’s Political Environment Not

Source: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Draft 2018 Water Quality Assessment Integrated Report

The Department of Environmental Quality has published its draft 2018 Water Quality Assessment Report rating the conditions of Virginia rivers, streams and other waterways. You can read read impenetrable prose of the executive summary here, which is like hacking your way through the dense jungle of a ’30s-vintage Tarzan movie, or you can read Tamara Dietrich’s distillation in the Daily Press. Dietrich’s summary:

Virginia’s waters are by no means pristine, but they’re mostly holding their own or even improving a bit in water quality, despite an influx of 1.6 million people over the last 20 years. … Over the last six years, water clarity in particular shows “significant improvement” overall, the report states, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay. Underwater grasses are surging, hitting 55 percent of the statewide goal, up from 47 percent just two years ago. And several segments of the bay and its tributaries — the James and Elizabeth rivers, for instance — once listed as impaired are showing improvement, particularly in low-oxygen dead zones.

Bacon’s bottom line: One of the more useful aspects of the report is that it shows that impairments to Virginia’s waters are many and varied. Certain issues — such as coal ash disposal — hog the media spotlight, generate public hysteria, seize the attention of lawmakers, and grab disproportionate public funding, while other issues go neglected.

Thus, Dominion Energy electricity rate payers will cough up between $3 billion and $5 billion to dispose of coal in lined landfills to guard against the risk that heavy metals, which can be toxic at high levels, might leak out. An obvious question: For a societal investment of billions of dollars, what other risks to Virginia waterways could be mitigated?

There has been no effort — absolutely none — to weigh the magnitude of risks, benefits and societal return on investment of coal ash disposal compared to alternative water-quality initiatives. He who generates the biggest headlines wins.

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9 responses to “Virginia’s Water Quality Improving… Virginia’s Political Environment Not

  1. It would be interesting to see if anybody has added up all the money spent over time on the various efforts to protect the bay, allowing natural processes heal it. It would be far more billions than the coal ash situation you discuss, with the money focused on improving wastewater treatment, preventing or capturing storm runoff, and preventing agricultural runoff. Restoring the grasses, oyster beds, etc. are also part of that effort. There has been a long-standing bipartisan consensus on this goal, and Virginia has spent alot. Not sure it has been neglected.

    Much of that cost has also been levied on ratepayers, but it is part of their wastewater treatment and storm water fees. My major beef with the Dominion coal ash agreement is that, once again, the company’s stockholders got off the hook entirely. On the Bay programs, it has been a mix of ratepayer dollars, state taxpayer dollars, with other costs collected through farm prices I assume. It hasn’t been 100 percent the ratepayers.

  2. Good news and a good point.

    First, the news. Water clarity and the resultant spread of underwater grasses is an absolutely crucial advance in the health of the Chesapeake Bay. It starts a virtuous cycle. The grasses hold down the sediment which clarifies the water which allows more sunlight to reach the shallower bottoms of the bay which accelerates the growth of underwater grasses. Perhaps we’ve reached the tipping point. I certainly hope so.

    Now the point. Your question about the cost / benefit of coal ash disposal in lined landfills brings forth a deficiency in the environmental groups I follow. They never seem to prioritize, at least not with dollars and cents. If society allowed the Sierra Club to spend $3b – $5b over the next 20 years on anything they wanted … would they pick lined coal ash disposal sites? I wouldn’t. I’d be much more interested in financially helping farmers to fence off streams on their property and lending money to municipalities to fix their wastewater treatment problems.

    Despite being an environmentalist, the philosophy of “infinite funding’ for all environmental issues is frustrating.

  3. It’s a very small group of people who could say ” I’m been a strong and consistent supporter of cleaning up our rivers and the Bay but the coal ash is a bridge too far”.

    More likely is that the folks who have consistently supported environmental laws and regulations to clean up our rivers and the Bay – also support moving the coal ash –

    AND those folks who have pretty much always been opposed to environmental laws and regs to clean up our environment – just add this one to that their long history of non-support of efforts to clean up or prevent environmental damage.

    It seems like it’s often about money and the “role” of government and all that ROT!

    And it’s NOT TRUE that there has been no reasoned discussion about the coal ash issue. There HAS BEEN and the arguments fall along the same general lines that we’ve seen many times before.

    The argument here seems to be that even if there was a huge flood and it did wash coal ash into the rivers (like has already happened).. it’s no big deal because the resulting contamination is “low level” and so okay – even a Judge in Chesapeake said it was “okay”.

    So , no.. when I see commentary pro and con – I look at the record of the folks who write the commentary and if they never really were a strong supporter of the environment – i.e. have a clear and visible record of participation, membership, and support – then I feel I’m just reading a repeat of their earlier opposition to prior similar issues.

    It’s pretty much – you’re either a supporter of environmental issues or you’re not – it’s a very small group – very small – of folks who say they used to support the environment but now we’ve “gone too far”.

    For the record – there may well be some middle ground on this issue but the opponents have none to offer – for them – it’s an all or nothing issue and that those who support clean-up are just typical “greens”, etc, etc and all that rot!

    • Let’s take cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. If you could only do one thing … what would that one thing be? I’d attack agricultural runoff, especially in Pennsylvania.

      Lining the coal ash pits might be important but it would not be my top priority.

      • the problem is – it’s not one issue… it’s a bunch.

        but I’d essentially agree with you except for one thing. Once you
        do that – it then sets a precedent for everything else.

        The farmers will say – with good justification – that they want an exemption also because they are not the biggest offenders either.

        In fact, the Farm Bureau and Farmers have already come out strongly opposed to TMDLs – which is an attempt to allocate to all sources – limits…for nitrogen and phosphorous.

        The ” this one thing won’t hurt” approach is basically what we’ve done in the past and it fails miserably…

        I’d take a middle ground on the coal ash – a comprehensive approach with an independent 3rd party analysis – that presents options – for costs versus clean up… as well as phased out over the years.

        I also ask and have asked why we use trucks when every single one of the coal ash sites has rail access.

  4. re: ” If society allowed the Sierra Club to spend $3b – $5b over the next 20 years on anything they wanted … would they pick lined coal ash disposal sites? I wouldn’t. ”

    but we don’t do that.

    What we have instead on this issue is a Dominion-hired consultant who has generated a bogus cost study and supporters of Dominion and typical opponents of environmental issues – in general – just stand on that.

    The pro-Dominion, and anti-environment crowd – typically is opposed to any type of response – and escalated estimates of cost are their weapon of choice… they really are not looking for middle ground, cost-effective approaches.

    Their game is that this is not THAT harmful and basically no amount of money spent on it is worth it.

    listen to them…… none of them are advocating for an independent estimate with options – so we might find something between full removal and doing nothing…

    Invariably the pro-cleanup people fight the good fight – then accept less than what they originally advocated for – which ends up being some middle ground …

    this is WHY most of the regulations we do have actually DO – ALLOW – some level of contamination as opposed to none.

    That’s EXACTLY what a NDPES permit is – it specifies limits of emissions – not no emissions.

    It’s the same with nitrogen and phosphorous – there is no rule that says there can be no release of any – it specifies the limits of what can be released.

    And it COULD BE with this issue also – it could well be a comprehensive approach so that ash that is not on a riverbank that could be flooded might be handled differently but the opponents really do make it an all or nothing proposition and demonize those that want some level of cleanup.

  5. …don’t get me started.

  6. Any intelligent society, which excludes much of the East and West Coasts, sets priorities. FDR, his generals and admirals, and Allies picked defeating Hitler as a priority over defeating Tojo. Why? So efforts were not going willy-nilly and resources were deployed consistently with the plan. And guess what, the Allies won the war.

    Parasites, on the other hand, which does include much of the East and West Coasts, don’t set priorities. Everything is a priority so that the parasites can live off tax dollars. The goal is jobs for bureaucrats and consultants, along with grants for universities and staff.

    Let’s set reasonable priorities and work towards them. Priorities should be set based on cost-benefit analysis and measurement. And when goals are achieved, the effort should be reduced to maintenance and other priorities addressed.

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