On March 7, 35 students from colleges across Virginia occupied the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ. With determination and clear demands, students locked arms in the DEQ lobby and vowed to stay until demands were met. Seventeen students were arrested to end the hold-out; five students from the University’s Climate Action Society were among those arrested. This action was in protest of permits given to Dominion Power to dump toxic coal ash wastewater in the James River and Quantico Creek, as well as a 30 million gallon discharge of coal ash wastewater in the Quantico Creek last year.
We went to the DEQ looking for answers from Director David Paylor, Virginia’s top environmental regulator. Specifically, we wanted to know why the DEQ has issued permits that allowed Dominion to dump waste water containing arsenic at amounts 3.5 times greater than the Virginia legal threshold. We went to the DEQ looking for answers as to how Paylor could be so negligent and we found them.
On Monday, an investigative report from NPR’s Washington affiliate revealed that Paylor has an uncomfortably close relationship with the energy giant behind the permits. In 2013, Paylor accepted a vacation to the Masters golf tournament in Georgia from Dominion, a trip that included a $1,200 pub tab. Paylor makes decisions that directly influence Dominion’s bottom line. It is absurd to think Dominion is not hoping for favors in return for their gifts, especially given their huge financial interest in these permits.
The day after the student occupation, Paylor requested to meet with the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition and Dominion Power scrambled to do damage control. Dominion settled two legal appeals of the permits issued by DEQ and agreed to more stringent standards for the toxic contaminants. The settlement with Prince William County requires an independent lab to monitor the quality of water being dumped, meeting one of the students’ demands. But Dominion’s other settlement with the James River Association still permits the company to monitor water quality itself. While these settlements forced Dominion to lower the threshold of arsenic and other heavy metals, students and community members are far from satisfied with Dominion’s response. The Potomac Riverkeepers and the entire State of Maryland are going to continue to appeal the DEQ’s inadequate protection measures. And last week the town of Dumfries, Va. initiated a federal investigation of Dominion and the DEQ for criminal activity regarding the illegal dumping of wastewater in 2015.
We’ve seen recently in Flint, Mich., how communities have been poisoned by an irresponsible government that failed to protect them. It is easy to ask ourselves how it got that bad, yet we need look no further than our own state government to see such flagrant disregard for environmental and health safety. Coal ash wastewater contains arsenic and other carcinogens known to cause severe health impacts. However toxic coal ash is in the same category as non-hazardous household garbage, and it is regulated less strictly than hazardous household waste like old electronics and prescriptions drugs. In Feb. 2016, Dominion admitted to releasing 27.5 million gallons of untreated coal ash wastewater from the Possum Point Power Station into Quantico Creek — more contaminated wastewater than was spilled into the Dan River during Duke Energy’s catastrophic 2014 coal ash spill of over 50,00 tons of coal ash. The wastewater released last summer into Quantico Creek was untreated and likely contained arsenic levels saturated as high as 900 micrograms per liter (six times more arsenic than the DEQ’s own threshold concentration).
Dominion and our state politicians are waking up to the radical potential for change when students organize together. We are coordinated, strategic and committed to getting to the bottom of this. The DEQ and Dominion have made a few feeble attempts to discredit opposition; Dominion held a media briefing in which they attempted to paint community resistance as "part of a larger fundraising campaign." It is absurd for such a large corporation to argue we engaged in civil disobedience simply to fundraise. Frustrated, Dominion wrote a public letter laughably titled “Don’t Worry, Trust Us,” in which they assure the public that their employees love our rivers just as much as the “young protestors,” especially Dominion president Bob Blue who is even known “to canoe to work.”
Dominion and the DEQ are nervous; they know that a well-organized, intelligent group of young people — united with frontline communities and local organizers — have the power to hold them responsible. Paylor failed to protect our communities by supporting permits which exceed Virginia’s pollution standards. Meanwhile, Dominion has strong-armed our politics and polluted our waters. But together Virginians are beginning to challenge the corporate power that has had “dominion” for far too long over Virginia politics and our communities.
Laura Cross is a second-year in the College and a member of the Climate Action Society.