“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.There are currently no comments highlighted.