Yes, “Blatant Fear Mongering” Is a Fair Description

Waterway in Dutch Gap Conservation Area depicted in SELC report. If you were a thirsty hiker, would you dip your canteen into this water? Would you drink water like this all year long?

A new report by the Southern Environmental Law Center finds that pollution from Dominion Energy’s Chesterfield Power Station may be leading to an increased health risk for some of the 200,000 visitors to the nearby Dutch Gap Conservation Area. States a press release announcing the release of the study:

There are elevated noncancer hazards and cancer risks for recreational visitors who interact with areas where contamination from the coal ash ponds is migrating into Dutch Gap Conservation Area. … Within these contaminated areas, cancer risks may be up to 10 times higher than the upper limit of what EPA considers “acceptable” cancer risk from polluted sites, and nearly 1,000 times higher than target risk levels.

Or, as summarized by the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

The consultant estimated that elevated levels of toxins such as arsenic in the park could result in an additional 700 to 900 cases of cancer per 1 million people. The standard for pollution remediation set by the Environmental Protection Agency sets the limit at 100 cases per 1 million people.

“It is time to move beyond this claim that there is no health or environmental risk at Chesterfield,” said Nate Benforado, attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This report raises some serious red flags about the long-term safety of leaving ash in leaking, unlined pits next to a popular park.”

The Times-Dispatch does quote Dominion spokesman Robert Richardson as criticizing the study. The SELC, said Richardson, “should be ashamed of itself for blatant fear mongering. They have taken our data that we shared with state and local officials, our customers, and the general public and compared it to a standard that has no legal or scientific relevance to water suitable for recreational use.”

Let’s take a closer look at the study. Unfortunately, the T-D article does not explain what standards Richardson is referring to. A reading of the study, prepared by Terra Technologies Environmental Services, makes it obvious. The report uses drinking water standards as a measure to assess the risk to recreational visitors to the park. To quote from the study:

Several water quality criteria (WQC) were selected as screening levels. The public water supply (PWS), risk-based tapwater screening levels (tapwater RSLs), and maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) were used as screening levels, in addition to the VA Other Surface Waters (OSW) criteria on the assumption that if the waters were acceptable as a long term drinking water source, all potentially relevant contaminants of concern (COPCs) would be identified.

The report justified the application of drinking water criteria to park visitors on the following grounds:

During swimming, boating, fishing, and other water contact activities — activities that are all offered at Dutch Gap — small amounts of water can be ingested and skin exposure can allow uptake of some contaminants as well. In addition, people visiting or camping in the area could wash their hands, bodies, or camp dishes using the surface water. Therefore, using the PWS to assess potential screening level risks due to incidental contact is appropriate.

Here’s the problem: Drinking-water standards such as Public Water Supply (PWS) standards, are based on the assumption that people drinking the water do so on a continual basis throughout the year. The SELC study is applying those standards to campers, hikers, and kayakers who visit Dutch Gap episodically and may or may not imbibe any water at all. Indeed, common sense suggests that almost no one drinks water straight out of the river. The idea that minute quantities of toxins and carcinogens might enter the body as the result of the water’s contact to the skin has no medical basis. And the volume of toxins and carcinogens that might enter the body after river water has been used to clean dishes, is likely too small to even measure. If there is evidence to suggest otherwise, it is not presented in the report.

So, Richardson’s umbrage, to my mind, is entirely justified.

Comparing apples to oranges. There is one more important point to be made here. While the level of contaminants is, in fact, elevated (although not to the point to represent a threat to recreational visitors to Dutch Gap) and arguably does pose a threat to aquatic wildlife (a point the SELC could legitimately point to), it arises from a decades-old system for storing coal ash. But SELC is not using the elevated contaminant levels merely to criticize the legacy storage system, which Dominion has proposed replacing by de-watering the coal ash, consolidating it into a single impoundment, and capping it with a synthetic liner to prevent rain water from migrating through. SELC wants Dominion to recycle the coal ash, remove it far from the river, and place it in a lined landfill at a potential additional cost of a billion dollars or more.

Maybe Dominion’s proposal will prove effective at eliminating all water contamination, maybe it won’t. SELC has argued plausibly that ground water might migrate through a small portion of the impoundment and leach minute quantities of heavy metals from the ash. But the potential for water contamination from Dominion’s proposed cap-in-place remedy indisputably would reduce the risk of contamination reaching the James River. It is irresponsible and reckless to stoke fears of hundreds of cancer deaths — wildly hyped fears, at that — based on contamination resulting from the aging coal ash storage system that is being phased out.

I have always considered SELC to be one of the more reliable environmental organizations whose attorneys and spokespersons are careful with the facts and shun hyperbole and unsubstantiated statements. This study is a sad departure from the group’s usual standards. The SELC’s hyping of this report can be fairly described as fear mongering. The SELC can do better.

Update: The SELC objects to my characterization of the study. The application of drinking water standards occurs only as a first step of the report as a way to screen out contaminants that need not be considered and focus on the ones that pose a threat to health and the environment. The second step adopts a standard EPA methodology. Read more about their reaction here.

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19 responses to “Yes, “Blatant Fear Mongering” Is a Fair Description”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    “SELC has argued plausibly that ground water might migrate through a small portion of the impoundment and leach minute quantities of heavy metals from the ash.”

    The toxins somehow got from Dominion’s containment cess pools into the waterways of Dutch Gap.

    I’d say the SELC has more than a plausible argument that this might happen.

    1. The existing coal ash storage system and Dominion’s proposed coal ash system are not remotely comparable. The fact that toxins escaped from one has no bearing on whether toxins will escape from the other. If you want details, I will provide them.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        So, Dominion engineered the original coal ash storage system and used it for decades. The regulators and members of the General Kleptocracy went along. It leaked. Now, opinions are divided on how to remediate this obvious and apparent dereliction of duty on behalf of Dominion and the Kleptocracy in Richmond. North Carolina says, “Ship the noxious sh** inland and seal it”. The Kleptocracy says, “try harder.”

        You want me to trust Dominion and the state government Kleptocracy it bought?

        What was it HAL said in 2001, a Space Odyssey? I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that?

        I’m sorry Jim, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

  2. Fear mongering is extremely popular approach these days, and accordingly many U.S. citizens are now terrified. Arsenic is a ubiquitous substance in nature and also a potential contaminant. It would take some research to figure out who is correct above.

    Maybe I write up a Bacon Rebellion article on risk communication, but basically the human brain is wired up wrong. As humans we happily accept enormous risks as long as we volunteer to accept the risk (eg; smoking/driving) whereas, on the other hand, we go into hysterical outrage over small even non-existent risks that we feel are being forced onto us. So the eco-groups are taking full advantage of this human risk perception weakness, and too many people are getting sucked in.

    But if we have a highly contaminated area, we need to consider not putting parks there.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Why did North Carolina decide to ship the sh**? They’re not stupid either.

      1. Here is some relevant information I posted in a previous post:
        “Cleaning up coal ash in North Carolina will cost Duke Energy $5.2 billion, 50% more than previously estimated, and the electric utility has indicated it will seek rate hikes beginning next year to recoup its costs.”

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          “Cleaning up coal ash in North Carolina will cost Duke Energy $5.2 billion, 50% more than previously estimated.”

          Chump change right, just to clean up coal ash? How about incentives paid to help usher in a new era for Northern Virginia? How’s this tally?

      2. We would need a comprensive list of all similar coal ash sites in the Southeast states, along with remediation plan for each site. Presumably we are talking up to 100 or more sites. You seem to be suggesting all other states have decided to excavate every site, except for Virginia as laggards. My impression is Duke, due to the pond rupture disaster they had, found themselves commited to more expensive clean up at that one area, but not all sites.

        1. PS- Remind me not to order my cinder blocks from North Carolina, or do you think they are shipping that stuff up to us here to Virginia?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Hmm… let me guess who I would more likely believe … the industry that has been polluting or the groups who have had to go to court to get that industry to do the right thing?

    So down at he Chesapeake site – the coal ash is actually underwater and Dominion has been in court to oppose any cleanup. Then they essentially go buy consultants (as opposed to funding independent consultants) to talk about how expensive it will be to clean up the other sites even as they are holding on to money collected in excess of what they should have charged.

    All things equal – the facts as presented, if true , I’d side with Jim on this one narrow issue but the bigger context here is that it’s darn hard to believe that Dominion actually does work in the public interest in general. They essentially do what the law and regulation calls for and precious little more.

    So the SELC perhaps stepped over that line one time compared to how many times Dominion has?

    Now days, these dust ups are pretty predictable … the length of time from the beginning of the disagreement to bomb-throwing words is a Twitter nano-second.

    No sympathy here for Dominion – they roll over who they can and cry victim when they can’t.

    1. Dominion has a profit-maximizing agenda.

      SELC has an ideological agenda.

      Neither deserves a presumption of telling the truth. Everything that either party says should be scrutinized and evaluated.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        re: ” SELC has an ideological agenda.”

        90% of SELC is straight on environmental/public interest -not ideological – you implied that yourself.

        99% of Dominion is about Dominion and not the public interest.

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    In a world where a significant percentage of parental idiots are not giving their kids vital vaccines, and the latest diet fad has other fools persuaded it will keep them alive to 105, why wouldn’t a baseless fear campaign based on pseudo-science be an easy choice?

    People, Dominion did what we wanted it to do, deliver low cost power using a low cost fuel. Whatever price is paid for changing the storage method of this ash will be paid by ratepayers, a delayed cost for electricity already used long, long ago. And we should be the ones to pay. Don’t beat on the power company on this one (and notice who is saying that!)

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Whatever price is paid for changing the storage method of this ash will be paid by ratepayers, a delayed cost for electricity already used long, long ago. And we should be the ones to pay. Don’t beat on the power company on this one (and notice who is saying that!)”

    I beat on the power company because they colllected more profits than they were entitled to and now refuse to spend that money – collected from ratepayers – on the coal ash cleanup.

    So yes.. Dominion is WRONG to not step up and do the right thing with those excess profits – and play silly and stupid games with the coal ash cleanup. No hired-gun consultant is to be considered an honest and objective “study”. Dominion should be forced to fully-fund State-picked independent 3rd party consultants on the coal-ash – and when that is done – the excess profits they collected should be clawed back and spent on the cleanup.

    Dominion does all this stuff – and ya’ll ignore it and go after SELC for one misstep… LORD!

  6. The Southern Environmental Law Center contacted me about this blog post and takes exception to my characterization of the study. According to SELC attorney Nate Benforado, consultants applied drinking water standards only as a first step, a screening process. If a contaminant fell below certain conservative benchmark, it could be thrown out and not considered at all. The idea was to limit the analysis to contaminants that posed a potential risk.

    The second step of the report does not rely upon drinking water standards. It uses a standard EPA methodology. “We stand by our conclusions that there are elevated health and environmental risk,” Benforado said.

    Also, said SELC communications manager Claudine McElwain, the Center does not claim that its results are definitive. “This is a preliminary study.” But it does wave a red flag that the matter warrants closer examination.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Has or will the new study been/will be used in a solicitation for donations?

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        I’d be shocked, shocked!

  7. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “Blatant Fear Mongering” spread among the public for private advantage has been around at least as long as humans started writing stuff down, take Alcibiades, for example. In North America “Blatant Fear Mongers” used to hang their victims on serial gusts of hysteria, after the Salem witch trials of the 17th century.


    Typically 17th century witch carcasses gave up to the instigators something of value, inheritance or grazing rights, or fee simple deed rights to land, or other public benefits In short, gruesome spectacles were often business and/or political transactions. And these gruesome spectacles continue unabated to this day.

    Today in America we are going through another epidemic of Blatant Fear Mongering. All around us now, “Blatant Fear Mongering” is quite the norm, rather than the exception. Often, too, a singular event kicks off whole series of witch hangings and their ilk that can easily last for decades, and waste many billions of public dollars, illicit monies that often end up in the pockets of the Fear Mongers.

    The best illustrative example I’ve found of this happened is the Love Canal Hoax, how it set off the Superfund debacle that ended up wasting tens of billions of public monies. That study of the Love Canal and other contemporary hoaxes is “Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation” by Cass R. Sunstein and Timur Kuran published 2007 by University of Chicago Law School.

    According to Wikipedia, Cass Sunstein is an American legal scholar, particularly in the fields of constitutional law, administrative law, environmental law, and law and behavioral economics, who was the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012. For 27 years, Sunstein taught at the University of Chicago Law School. He’s now the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. Studies of legal publications between 2009 and 2013 found Sunstein to be the most frequently cited American legal scholar by a wide margin.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Has or will the new study been/will be used in a solicitation for donations?

    Steve Haner | November 15, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Reply
    I’d be shocked, shocked!”

    so then I’d ask what is your FAVORITE group for supporting the public interest against corporate interests in Virginia on the environment?

    I bet the answer is none, right?

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