Where Is Politifact When You Need Them?

“Democracy dies in darkness,” declares the tag-line of the Washington Post, which poses as a defender of the country from fake news peddled by the Trump administration. Perhaps the newspaper should consider fact-checking content on its Opinion page as well.

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), and LaDelle McWhorter, chairperson of Virginia Organizing, are certainly entitled to the opinions they expressed in a Washington Post op-ed last week. But someone should call them to account for loose and unsubstantiated assertions they made…. and I’m doubting the Post will do it.

The thrust of their op-ed is to explain why Dominion Energy, the “all-powerful corporation that has ‘owned’ Richmond for decades,” has become a political liability, mostly among Democratic Party candidates for office. In short, they declare that Dominion has behaved in a beastly manner to the environment. To be sure, Dominion has stirred up controversy as it re-engineers its infrastructure to replace coal with natural gas. Critics have raised some legitimate concerns regarding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, coal ash disposal and electric transmission lines, among other projects. But the issues are complicated. Tidwell and McWhorter don’t do nuance.

Let’s look at four of the more egregious statements.

Dumping liquid coal ash. “Dominion … has dumped highly controversial coal ash liquid into major Virginia rivers (the James, tributaries of the Potomac, the Elizabeth).”

To say that Dominion “dumped” coal ash liquid implies an indiscriminate release of polluted water. Before the enactment in 2015 of new Environmental Protection Agency regulations governing coal ash disposal, Dominion did periodically release rainwater that had accumulated atop coal ash ponds but did not mix with the combustion residue, as permitted by state and federal law. Since then, the company has run rainwater as well as water from the coal-ash slurry through a water-treatment process that reduces pollutants to levels well below EPA limits — indeed, in many cases, to undetectable levels.

That system is working well. Environmental groups, which had a hand in negotiating the rules detailed in a Department of Environmental Quality permit, have not filed any legal complaints regarding the de-watering process at the Bremo Bluff Power Station. A judge struck down a complaint filed at Possum Point. Dominion has not yet begun de-watering its Chesterfield or Chesapeake power stations.

Coal ash burial. “The ash, which has accumulated from decades of coal combustion at nearby Dominion power plants, is already suspected in places to be leaking highly toxic substances into the rivers.

CCAN doesn’t come right out and assert that Dominion coal ash ponds leaked toxic substances into rivers. It says Dominion is “suspected” of leaking. And, technically, that’s accurate because environmental groups do, in fact, suspect that leaks have occurred. What’s missing from the statement is critical context.

For example, in a federal lawsuit, Sierra Club attorneys demonstrated that underground water has migrated through ponds at the Chesapeake power station, picked up contaminants, and emptied into the nearby Elizabeth River. But the presiding judge also found that the volumes were so small and were diluted by such a large volume of river water that the metals posed no danger to aquatic life or human health.

The toxicity of a chemical compound depends upon its concentration. Oxygen, which is essential to human and animal life, also is toxic at elevated percentages and pressures. Likewise, heavy metals that leach from coal ash are “toxic” in the sense that they can be harmful to human and aquatic life above certain levels but are non-toxic below those levels. Some of these “toxic” chemicals are required to sustain human life. For example, according to Wikipedia, zinc, one of the heavy metals leached from coal ash, “is an essential component of a large number (>300) of enzymes participating in the synthesis and degradation of carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids as well as in the metabolism of other micronutrients.”

The fact that a “highly toxic” substance has leaked into the water in is, by itself, meaningless, and the use of such language is designed to scare rather than enlighten.

North Anna 3. “Adding to Dominion’s unpopularity is its desire to build a $19 billion (yes, with a “b”) nuclear reactor at its North Anna plant. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) says it’s unneeded and a bad deal for consumers.”

Dominion does not “desire” to build a third nuclear unit at the North Anna Power Station. The company has spent vast sums keeping open the option to build another nuclear unit should circumstances prove necessary. In its 2017 Integrated Resource Report, Dominion offered eight possible economic and regulatory scenarios framing energy usage over the next 15 years. In only one of those scenarios — the one that cracks down the hardest on carbon emissions, requiring the closure of the Mecklenburg and Clover coal-fueled power stations (577 megawatts of capacity) — does Dominion envision the need for another nuclear unit to maintain base-load capacity. But given the fact that environmental groups such as CCAN are pushing for tough restrictions on both nuclear power and CO2 emissions, that scenario cannot be ignored.

Mountaintop removal. “Federal regulators have revealed that Dominion intends to remove the tops of mountains, including Roberts Mountain, to build a pipeline for gas from hydraulic fracturing. Indeed, using publicly available documents, opponents of the pipeline have shown that the summit of Roberts Mountain could be ‘reduced’ by 60 feet, literally exploded away.”

Federal regulators have “revealed” no such thing.

CCAN bases its assertion on text appearing in the draft Environmental Impact Statement declaring that “narrow ridgetops [will] require widening and flattening in order to provide workspace in the temporary right-of-way. … For the AP-1 mainline the construction right-of-way in non-agricultural uplands would measure 125 feet in width, with a 40-foot-wide spoil side and an 85-foot-wide working side.”

Seemingly consistent with this statement, Dominion has filed maps with regulatory authorities that show short sections of the proposed pipeline route with a 125-foot right-of-way. By overlaying these route maps upon topographical maps, CCAN allies have inferred that Dominion plans to blast off 10 to 60 feet of mountaintop along 38 miles of ridge-line.

But the company strenuously denies such an intention. The maps are regulatory documents, not engineering plans. ACP is seeking to obtain 125 feet of right of way along the entire 600-mile route, but that doesn’t mean the company will need to grade the entire 125 width. The width of the working area will vary from ridge-line to ridge-line, depending upon local conditions. When contractors encounter steep ridge-lines, ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby says, they will endeavor to dig no more than an 8-foot trench and clear only enough trees and topsoil on either side to temporarily hold spoil and provide room for heavy equipment to maneuver. While some additional excavation may be necessary in places, he adds, it will be a small fraction of the volume that CCAN claims.

Tidwell and McWhorter may not trust Dominion to tell the truth. But saying, “We don’t trust Dominion” not to blast off mountaintops is a far cry from declaring, “Federal regulators have revealed” that Dominion intends to blast off mountaintops.

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17 responses to “Where Is Politifact When You Need Them?

  1. With postings like this you are modelling reporting at its best. Although a concept seemingly completely abandoned by the new click-driven, sensation-seeking Washington Post, the reporter’s job was once to keep honest those who would sell to us, teach us, govern us and control our lives. Apparently, that now includes metastasizing number of do-gooder bullies who are content to block and disrupt for their pet causes without engaging in the really hard work of figuring out how their mission — ie in this case protect the environment — can be effectively integrated with promoting the growth and prosperity of those of us living in it.

    It appears that Dominion should be lauded for very intense, fully-invested and competently dispatched environmental-friendly strategies.
    We know that they too would be in the cross-hairs of Bacon’s Rebellion if they strayed from that behavior and such truancy would be as well-documented as your evisceration of Tidwell and McWhorter’s op ed.

  2. why the NERVE! spinning words like Dominion does!

  3. The demographics of our region is conducive to the development of an active environmental movement, and Dominion has the problem of being their biggest target. That is part of the explanation for the over-the-top negativity. I don’t think anyone would consider Virginia itself to be a paragon of environmental stewardship, even the blue areas of Virginia such as NoVA are weak eco-performers at best. Needless to say, a team up of Virginia politics +Dominion will not be an environmentalist’s dream come true.

  4. I maintain that Dominion COULD HAVE a much better image if they actually did work to support solar and demand side efficiencies – it’s obvious they oppose it except when they can make PR points off of it but clearly they work to make it hard for homeowners and 3rd party to try to save money by using solar. They could do a LOT BETTER on demand side also… like a lot of other utilities already do…

    Then they need to get rid of their combative and antagonistic attitude towards those that question their actions and behaviors and stop categorizing any such challenges as coming from “environmentalists” as if there are no others who also have concerns. Most Virginians polled want the coal ash handled better than leaving in place and yet Dominion acts like this is a small group of troublemakers who want it. Even Bacon does this…in his narratives.

    Dominion is a corporate citizen of Va but they act a lot like Robber Barons of old in the way they conduct themselves on controversial issues… they end up making their own selves targets.. by their belligerence and hostility towards any who dare question their actions. …

    they need a swift kick in their corporate keister…

  5. Gee whiz!

    Dominion-sponsored BR is responding to a WashPo opinion story that never ran in BR. And, zinc is good for you!

    BTW the same section has run Dominion’s views:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-dominions-electric-rate-freeze-in-virginia-is-good-for-residents/2017/03/17/2cb475c0-050a-11e7-b1e9-a05d3c21f7cf_story.html?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.e805e97c4ce6

    Did BR find this one “nuanced?”

    • Mr. Webb with Dominion is entitled to his opinions, just as Mr. Tidwell is to his. The difference is that Mr. Webb did not fill his article with unsubstantiated claims. Perhaps that is a distinction that eludes you, but most people understand the difference.

  6. Webb didn’t? No mention of refunds to ratepayers!

    Also, you state that Dominion is catching hell for moving to renewables. Actually it is the other way around.

    Also, I looked at responses to Tidwell’s article. I didn’t see Dominion comment. Are you commenting for them?

    • I did not mean to imply the Dominion is catching hell for moving to renewables. But I can see how someone might reasonably read it in the way that you did. So, I have edited the text to avoid confusion.

      As for Dominion’s comments on Tidwell’s story, I don’t know what the company has said, and I don’t really care. That’s their business.

  7. Jim B… do you want me to go out and grab some of the less-than-factual “opinions” that emanate from Dominion and it’s surrogates?

    this is funny.

    a steady stream of “nuanced” PR blather coming from Dominion these days – and not a whimper, but let the opposite side have at it.. and from the wailing and gnashing, you’d have thought that a gazillion oxen have been gored!

    I wish MORE people would lay it on Dominion !!! every time they find it necessary to blather!

  8. quite a bit of it is right here in BR…. just wretched PR blather.

    but their insistence that there is no other way to cross the James but their way

    there is no other way to deal with the coal ash but cap in place.

    there is no way to get gas for their plants than building a pipeline.

    In all cases – there are OPTIONS… and that’s what the public deserves from Dominion – NOT THEIR POSITION – they owe the public on the pipeline, the coal ash and the powerlines over the James – different options each with it’s benefits and impacts … it’s not what Dominion argues.. is the only way.

  9. Having worked for a public utility in my time, I will be the first to say that there are undoubtedly a few utility employees who are not angels. Neither are they populated with monsters. They are doing a public-service job, as they see it, and most of them are fine neighbors and friends. But often they don’t mention who they work for when they first meet strangers.

    What bothers me most is the presumption that anything announced publicly by a utility is tainted, or worse, a lie. In this world of “alternative facts”; of “pro” or “con” silos of isolation from quality journalism, of self-selected “news” sources operating for a profit from east European living rooms, of “fake news” campaigns intended to sink good candidates in the polls — it’s easy to blame the political right wing for its recent excesses and overlook the fact that the political left is not without its own self-reinforcing “echo chambers,” its own isolated information “silos.”

    We owe each other the assumption of speaking in good faith and the decency of listening and thinking about others’ points of view (until we know there’s a hidden agenda or downright ill will). I know that’s a hopelessly old-fashioned view of things, but it sure does make life pleasanter, and more interesting — and less inclined to cause us to hear those shrill accusations no one is persuaded by anyway.

    Some of the regulars who comment here are more careful and considerate. Then there are the unfounded, conclusory statements like “their belligerence and hostility towards any who dare question their actions”; or, “clearly they work to make it hard for homeowners and 3rd party to try to save money by using solar” — but we agree it would help to have a more substantive discussion of practical options in a public forum like this. But there’s no incentive for anyone to have that discussion! Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the very regulatory nightmare that BR comments on elsewhere. It’s so damned complicated and takes so long and is so full of contingencies waiting for X, then Y, then Z can go forward, so full of people looking for any excuse for delay — that once the utility has picked a way forward it’s next to impossible to change anything in its application without restarting the regulatory clock. This breeds the opposite of flexibility and common sense. What project engineer actually anticipated every single detail of a multi-year, multi-million-dollar project correctly in advance, or wrote up the project without including a few overreaches the applicant is already prepared to give up? Yet change to accommodate public input is anathema. No wonder the only ones who actually achieve significant changes are the regulators themselves who use their leverage wisely, and there are too few of them.

    Occasionally those strident, politically focused protesters get some helpful press attention, manage to do some good in spite of themselves, but as often as not people tune them out, or vote them out. And we all know where that gets us, politically anyway.

  10. re: ” What bothers me most is the presumption that anything announced publicly by a utility is tainted, or worse, a lie.”

    For myself I base my view on patterns of behavior.

    I think Dominion is a very well run company that is more than capable of protecting it’s own interests.

    And I give them KUDOS on maintenance and operational of a highly reliable electricity grid.

    but I DING THEM for their BEHAVIOR on controversial issues that affect not only them but Virginians where of late – they invariably assume an arrogant and combative posture that is essentially ” Our way or the road” when it comes to coal ash, pipelines and powerlines over the James.

    Dominion refuses to engage in a substantiative discussion.. refuses to generate data on OPTIONS with pros and cons on benefits and impacts.

    It’s basically one thing – what they want… and then warfare with those that do not agree…. with anyone who does not agree – labelled a “environmentalist group” as if if you disagree with DOminion – you’re automatically a green weenie.

    There are, in fact, a LOT of Virginians – normal… even-keeled who want to see solar go forward, powerlines put where Jamestown is not. coal ash put in lined landfills and pipelines properly constructed over steep slopes and creeks.

    Dominion has a Corporate culture problem and it’s on full display on these issues these days.

    time after time – they have the opportunity – to respond in ways that demonstrate a willingness to work to compromise – and time and time again they CHOOSE a belligerent and disingenuous response – like claiming coal ash can only be trucked when each site already has rail access.

    or claiming that solar does not “work” because it needs “backup” which is simply not the truth.

    It’s not biased or unfair to point these things out and try to hold them accountable for doing better… in the end… when they do better.. we get to better, less controversial solutions..

    that’s the goal..

  11. I agree with Larry.
    DOM seems very well run but has constant unforced errors.

  12. Which entity is more consistently correct – Dominion or the WaPo (or pick your other favorite media outlet, if you prefer)? Most polls view journalist as one of the least trusted professions. It took me about three years and countless exchanges and interviews with the WaPo for it to even acknowledge the great Tysons urbanization would not reduce traffic congestion. And I bet if Tysons were in a different market, the same result would have occurred with that area’s local media company. Ideology and preconceptions dominate with all but a few journalists.

    • Thank you, TMT, for answering PG and LG so well — but it isn’t just the media that are dominated by “ideology and preconceptions” bred by our information silos these days.

      • Acbar – I agree. There is bias in many places as it is part of human nature. However, most non-media entities don’t proclaim that they report things in an unbiased matter.

        I have lots of problems with Trump. But why all the investigation when the media simply ignored most allegations against Obama’s administration? Also the media gave great coverage to the Montana candidate’s “body slamming,” but seems to have forgotten that now Democratic Senator Al Franken body slammed a heckler of Howard Dean. http://nypost.com/2004/01/27/al-franken-knocks-down-dean-heckler/

        The media jumped on the CBO’s prediction that 23 million people would lose health insurance with the GOP House bill. Yet many of those people don’t have insurance today, refusing to pay the higher and higher premiums and deductibles. Also, current Medicaid beneficiaries, including those who’ve gained coverage under Obamacare’s expansion, are grandfathered in under the House GOP proposal. And, of course, the CBO failed miserably in its prediction of how many people would subscribe to Obamacare. When Obamacare first passed, CBO anticipated that by 2016, 21 million Americans would enroll in the law’s exchanges. When 2016 rolled around, the real number was just about 10 million. That’s a pretty big miss. Imagine if Dominion’s projections were off by that much. But the CBO still used its 2016 baseline projection in making its new estimates. https://townhall.com/tipsheet/guybenson/2017/05/25/no-the-republican-healthcare-bill-would-not-cause-23-million-people-to-lose-insurance-n2331434 http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2017/05/the-cbos-analysis-of-the-gops-health-care-bill-is-worthless.php

        Reagan had it right when he said government is the problem.

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