Settlement in Sewer District Lawsuit in Upper Potomac

In August 2015, Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls filed a Clean Water Act (CWA) complaint against the Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District for repeated violations of its water pollution control permit. The Marlowe Towne Center Waste Water Treatment Facility, part of the sewer district, had been discharging pollutants, including fecal coliform, zinc and sediment into the Falling Waters area of the Potomac River, over the past five years or more.

Last week, the sewer district agreed to hire a compliance officer and pay a $40,000 penalty.

The compliance officer's "sole responsibility shall be to inspect the district's facilities and focus on the district's efforts on compliance with all of the district's ... permits." The sewer district will also pay up to $30,000 in costs and attorney's fees to Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

The resolution of this lawsuit will require the sewer district to notify us of all violations or upsets on a regular basis so that the public will know if the service district is adhering to their permits. We believe that having a compliance officer is a far greater of value than the fine the sewer district is required to pay. Making sure the public is aware and in the know about the water quality in their river, whether it is the Opequon (Creek) or the Potomac River, is one of our major goals.

The legal settlement comes at a time when the sewer district is moving toward completion of millions of dollars in improvements to address more stringent standards on Chesapeake Bay-related pollutant discharges, as well as operational upgrades.

The Sewer District has a history of discharge violations that have resulted in legal action. A 2006 Circuit Court ruling required the Sewer District to resolve ammonia and fecal coliform discharge violations at the Opequon/Hedgesville wastewater facility. Again in 2011, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection filed a civil action against the Sewer District for a total of 1010 violations at 11 wastewater facilities that it operates. The civil action was resolved in 2014; in which the Sewer District was fined $300,000 and required to come into compliance with those discharge permits by the end of 2015.

USGS Shenandoah Smallmouth Bass Research Beginning to Find Answers

Shenandoah smallmouth bass with black spot.

Shenandoah smallmouth bass with black spot.

Shenandoah Riverkeeper began working with Dr. Vicki Blazer, of the USGS National Fish Health Research Laboratory in Kearneysville, WV, during the 2005 Fish Kill Task Force. Since then, we've assisted in the lab’s collection efforts and have been the eyes and ears for happenings on the river. The result of this collaboration is a greater understanding of the threats facing our smallmouth bass population. 

At the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Project’s November meeting, Blazer discussed fish health issues in the Chesapeake Watershed. Her research revealed three troubling issues: Shenandoah fish still suffer from skin lesions, an unnatural level of mortality of adult fish in the spring, and a high prevalence of intersex fish where mortalities are occurring. 

While no smoking gun was identified as the sole culprit for the 2005 Shenandoah fish kill (or the many others that followed), Blazer’s research sheds light on the role pesticides and other chemicals (e.g. neonicotinoids) play in the health of wild fish populations. It’s not good news.

She explained that many pesticides are produced to have a biological effect that, even at very low levels, can impact the endocrine and immune systems of fish. The USGS lab has determined that short-term exposure at sensitive life stages can have long-term or even permanent effects on fish. A high percentage of fish tested had multiple bacterial pathogens — often with heavy parasite infestations and some with opportunistic fungal infections. The pesticides also seem to be the cause of the high prevalence of intersex fish. Strong correlations were found between the presence of diseased fish with the percentage of agricultural land use, confined animal feeding operations and agricultural herbicides and pesticides.

In addition, Blazer and her team did not find a relationship with disease or indicators of estrogenic exposure with wastewater treatment effluent, which is where you would expect to find it, if the primary cause was estrogen residue resulting from birth control pills. 

Many questions remain unanswered so its important that Blazer and her team at USGS are able to continue their research. We are fortunate to have Dr. Blazer leading the way to learn more about the threats to our rivers. We look forward to contributing to this effort in the coming years.

A sample of Dr. Vicki Blazer’s research:

Kolpin, D.W., Blazer, V.S. , Gray, J.L., Focazio, M.J., Young, J.A ., Alvarez, D.A., Iwanowicz, L.R., Foreman, W.T., Furlong, E.T., Speiran, G.K., Zaugg, S.D., Hubbard, L.E., Meyer, M.T., Sandstrom, M.W. & Barber, L.B. (2013). Chemical Contaminants in Water and Sediment near fish nesting sites in the Potomac River Basin: Determining Potential Exposures to Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu). Science of the Total Environment. 443C:700-716.

Stavreva, D.A., Klausmeyer, P., George, A.A., Varticovski, L., Sack, D., Voss, T.C., Schiltz, R.L., Blazer, V.S., Iwanowicz, L.R. & Hager, G. (2012). Prevalent Glucocorticoid and Androgen Activity in US Water Sources. Scientific Reports. 2:937.

Blazer, V.S., Iwanowicz, L.R., Henderson, H., Mazik, P.M., Jenkins, J.A., Alvarez, D.A., Young, J. (2011). Reproductive endocrine disruption in smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) in the Potomac River basin: Spatial and temporal comparisons of biological effects. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, Published Online Aug 4, 2011.

PRKN Posts $1500 Reward for Information on Source of Oil Plume

On December 1, we announced that we are offering a $1000 reward for information identifying those responsible for the plume of pollution in the Potomac River that forced area water utilities to take measures to protect the drinking water of millions of area residents this week. Today, the reward was raised to $1500.

We’re treating this as an environmental crime. We want to send the message that it’s illegal and completely unacceptable for anyone to dump any amount of oil into the river and threaten the drinking water supply for millions of people. We're concerned that investigators have been unable to find the source of the oily substance — and, in turn, determine exactly what it is — for five days.

Photo from Neal Augenstein, WTOP

Photo from Neal Augenstein, WTOP

An oily substance floating on the surface of the river was identified last Sunday about 45 miles upstream of the District, near Point of Rocks, Maryland. River models predict that it could arrive in the District as soon as today or tomorrow. Local utilities have set booms, closed intakes and/or increased the frequency of monitoring to avoid introducing the unidentified pollution into municipal water supplies.

No matter how small, dumping chemicals or oil in to the river is illegal. It requires an extraordinary amount of resources from public agencies and utilities to respond to protect our drinking water source.

Our rivers are vital to our health and our economy. When individuals or corporations use these public resources as their private dump, it impacts us all. That’s why we’re offering a reward to encourage anyone who saw something, to say something.

The sheer size of our watershed demands that citizens play a role in its protection. Our organization was founded on the idea that those closest to our rivers — through their work or their recreation — are best able to identify and prevent pollution. The more people realize how valuable our rivers are and play a role in protecting them, the more likely we are to prevent situations like this.

The EPA is the lead federal agency coordinating the response and spearheading the investigation to identify the source of the pollution. Potomac Riverkeeper Network will pass along information it receives to EPA to aid in their investigation.

Tips about potential sources of this pollution can be reported to us at http://www.potomacriverkeepernetwork.org/report-pollution-how-to/

PRESS RELEASE

News

Mysterious oily sheen on the Potomac is en route to D.C., Washington Post, November 29, 2016

What caused that mysterious sheen in the Potomac? An environmental group will give you $1,000 if you know, Washington Post, December 1, 2016

With cause of Potomac sheen still unclear, group offers $1,000 reward, WTOP, December 2, 2016

http://www.fox5dc.com/news/221126531-story             

Fair Farms, Working Together for a New Food System!

Over the past year, Potomac Riverkeeper Network joined with Waterkeepers Chesapeake and several other groups to launch Fair Farms, a movement of Marylanders of all stripes, working together for a new food system — one that is fair to farmers, invests in homegrown healthy foods, and restores our waterways instead of polluting them.

The Fair Farms Campaign brings together consumers, green businesses, visionary farmers, environmental and public health organizations, and eaters all over the state of Maryland to advocate for visionary farming practices and to support farmers who farm against the grain while protecting our waterways and our lands — through the #FairFarms campaign!

Check out Fair Farms cool, new animated video “Are You Ready for a New Food Future?” And then take the pledge to be a Fair Farms consumer?

On December 3rd, Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls is co-hosting a film screening at Fox Haven Organic Farm, a Fair Farms partner. They are showing “Dirt! The Movie,” and talking about a proposed hog factory farm that will threaten Big Cove Creek, a tributary of the Upper Potomac River.

Together, we are building toward a day when farm practices restore the soil and support the health of our waterways, making them once again swimmable, drinkable, and fishable — and when everyone can enjoy healthy, delicious, affordable local food, grown responsibly.

Please visit the new Fair Farms website to learn more and take the pledge.

Follow Fair Farms on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

Together, we can build a powerful movement to heal both our food system and our ecosystem.

Stand with us to protect clean water

Dear Friend of Potomac Riverkeeper Network,

3RKs_confluence.jpg

The post-election power shift in Washington creates new challenges to our mission of keeping the Clean Water Act’s promise of swimmable, drinkable and fishable waters alive. If even a fraction of the campaign rhetoric becomes reality, we’re on the brink of the most dramatic federal regulatory rollbacks in decades. While our President-elect aims to break the gridlock or “drain the swamp” in Washington, we are deeply concerned that environmental protections will get caught in the cross-hairs: President-elect Trump has promised to dismantle the EPA “in almost every form”.

But Americans are still united in our vision for clean water and this is the ray of hope that I want to shine brightly as we dedicate this issue of our newsletter to the Clean Water Act. There is no law which deserves more credit for the 45 years of progress we’ve made in cleaning up the Potomac -- once considered a “national disgrace”.

Our ability to meet these new challenges is directly tied to your support and engagement.

Your greater support means stronger advocacy — more water monitoring for use in court against polluters, more yard signs alerting the public about raw sewage being dumped into our rivers, and more events that build appreciation for these unique and amazing rivers we love and work to protect— to name just a few. As details of the incoming administration’s plans to gut clean water protections come into focus, Americans are mobilizing en masse to financially support nonprofits as a critical counterbalance to this destructive agenda. I just hope people don’t overlook the small and regional groups. There’s no replacing the local grassroots actions that organizations like PRKN take to protect our own river’s most precious assets.

To this effect, your greater engagement is more critical than ever, as citizen action will undoubtedly be a key to resisting a runaway anti-environmental agenda. And I’m talking about “across the aisle” type engagement. As I’ve said many times we’re lucky that our membership is made up of an even mix of conservative and liberal thinkers and it’s this diversity in representation that makes us more relevant to our lawmakers than ever. We urge you to stay tuned to the “Riverkeeper Channel” (action alerts, enews, newsletters and social media) for the most valuable actions you can take to amplify your voice.

These election results will also demand increased vigilance in identifying and preventing polluters who will inevitably be emboldened by the cavalier attitude taken by the President-elect toward our natural resources. With your help, we’ll redouble our advocacy at the state and local level to protect what we cherish about the Potomac and Shenandoah. We will also work with Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Waterkeeper Alliance, and other regional and national partners to fight the attacks on the Federal Clean Water Act.

Together, we’ve accomplished a lot. Now we need your support to continue to be the voice of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers for future generations.

See you on the river,

Jeff

Proposed Fracked Gas Pipeline Threatens Potomac River & a National Park

Local Landowners Face Losing Property Through Eminent Domain

October 23rd protest rally at Hancock, Maryland

October 23rd protest rally at Hancock, Maryland

Behind the scenes, without public input, a West Virginia gas company called Mountaineer Gas is quietly laying the groundwork for a fracked gas pipeline that would threaten the Potomac River and the National Park Service’s C&O Canal, one of the most visited national parks.

Residents in Morgan County, WV became aware of the pipeline proposal only after landmen requested access to properties for routing of the pipeline. Mountaineer Gas began bullying residents with ultimatums and eminent domain after receiving conditional approval from the WV Public Service Commission to route their gas line. The route proposed would cross five streams, all of which is in Karst geology. Karst geology is limestone that can rapidly dissolve and form pathways between the surface and groundwater, including streams. Pipelines do leak and in Karst geology pose a risk to private wells, cause stream contamination and stream flow loss, and develop sinkholes that can threaten the integrity of the pipeline.

The proposal Mountaineer Gas submitted to WV Public Service Commission is for construction of a multi-million dollar pipeline from an existing line in the Martinsburg area west to Berkeley Springs and east to Jefferson County. This pipeline is contingent on the approval and construction of a Columbia Gas pipeline from Pennsylvania. The Columbia Gas pipeline would route south from Bedford, PA to Hancock, MD, under the C&O Canal and Potomac River, finally ending in the Berkeley Springs, WV area. Columbia Gas is currently communicating with the National Park Service to be granted a right-of-way access to drill under Park property.

There is a real risk of this combined project to the Potomac River, the drinking water source for over 6 million people, and a risk to several high quality West Virginia streams and to private property in both Maryland and West Virginia.

The community gathered and submitted over 60 letters of protest to the proposed gas line.

On October 4th, environmental groups, including Potomac Riverkeeper Network, filed a motion to intervene in the Mountaineer Gas appeal. Our intention was to bring the potential of environmental damage into the case.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Send a letter to the National Park Service. Tell the NPS that there is outrage over a new, unnecessary pipeline that threatens the C&O Canal and the Potomac River. Demand that the NPS needs to make this right-of-way permit a public process. Watch our website for alerts about actions we are taking and join us. Write in to your local papers. Put a sign in your yard. Talk to your neighbors.  

BACKGROUND

Mountaineer Gas Pipeline

Mountaineer Gas works exclusively in West Virginia and therefore does not have federal oversight of this pipeline proposal. Once the route is secured, the pipeline has to receive a 401 state certification permit, a 404 ACOE permit, and state regulatory permits and authorizations. Mountaineer Gas has recently received authorization to proceed after an appeal of their application modification. Because the modification was perceived to be minor, public notice of the process was not initiated. However, Mountaineer Gas describes the pipeline as a distribution line mostly catering to two large companies. The distribution line would be a “redundant” line, essentially, a back-up gas line. This pipeline is contingent on the completion of the Columbia Gas line, which has yet to submit an application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Columbia Gas and National Park Service

Based on conversations with Mountaineer Gas representatives and National Park Service (NPS) officials connected with the Hagerstown C&O Canal office, we know that Columbia Gas has presented a proposal to drill under the C&O Canal property and the Potomac River near Hancock, MD. The National Park Service has granted Columbia Gas a right-of-entry to survey. There has been no public information about talks between Columbia Gas and NPS or the request for the right-of-entry authorization.

FERC’s One-sided Approach

FERC has a history of downplaying potential environmental damage and property rights as they analyze natural gas pipeline development projects. The Mountaineer Gas project will involve numerous stream crossings, cross land that is geologically vulnerable to spills and unnecessarily threaten the source of drinking water for millions of people.

————————————————————————————————————

Thank you for taking the time to read this. We strongly believe the public should be involved when a gas company seeks a right-of-entry to national park property for private financial gain — especially when it puts our ability to use and enjoy one of the most visited national parks of the country at risk. 

p.s. Want to use snail mail? Here are the NPS addresses.

Protecting Our Water & People from Fracking

Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls, Youghiogheny Riverkeeper Krissy Kasserman, Waterkeepers Chesapeake Board Member Robin Broder in Garrett County on August 30 to testify at public forum.

Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls, Youghiogheny Riverkeeper Krissy Kasserman, Waterkeepers Chesapeake Board Member Robin Broder in Garrett County on August 30 to testify at public forum.

The far western panhandle of Maryland is beautiful country, graced by deep lakes, wild forests and of course the Upper Potomac River.  Unfortunately it also contains a slice of the Marcellus Shale, the geologic basin that has been the target of the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” industry in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia for years.  The resulting gas drilling boom in those states has taken a grim toll on the environment and local communities, in the form of air and water pollution, worker deaths, public health impacts and fractured “boom and bust” economies. Maryland hasn’t seen fracking yet – but it could happen as early as October 2017.

To address this threat, Potomac Riverkeeper Network joined the Don't Frack Maryland coalitionmade up of over 100 organizations concerned about the risks posed by fracking, now well proven by other states’ experience and a rapidly growing body of scientific evidence confirming the likely harm to our environment and communities that could result if fracking takes off in Maryland. Potomac Riverkeeper Network supports the Coalition’s call for a statewide ban, citing the fact that no state has developed and enforced regulations protective enough of the environment and public health to warrant allowing it. In fact, Maryland’s proposed regulations are remarkably weak and would put our drinking water, air and health in danger.  

The two year moratorium currently in place in Maryland is set to run out in October 2017, when fracking regulations due to be proposed in fall 2016 go into effect. Rather than use that time to conduct a thorough risk assessment of fracking, Governor Hogan’s administration instead issued proposed changes to draft regulations written during Governor O’Malley’s tenure that would further weaken, not strengthen state fracking rules.  These changes include elimination or reduction of setbacks to protect surface and groundwater drinking water aquifers, including Deep Creek Lake, and shamefully weak air and water quality monitoring requirements. Potomac Riverkeeper Network raised concerns about the O’Malley regulations, and we are gearing up to fight these weaker standards as part of this Coalition.

While Garrett and Allegany counties would be immediately and disproportionately burdened if fracking proceeds, the long term impacts would be felt across Maryland.  Federal approval of the Cove Point natural gas export terminal will spur development of natural gas pipelines and compressor stations across the state, resulting in additional air and water impacts. Western Maryland has already endured the tainted legacy of acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines, which severely impact local streams and the Potomac River.  We must not repeat the mistakes of the past and allow harmful fossil fuel extraction that will benefit the gas industry and burden local communities and future generations.

It’s not just this coalition that’s opposed to fracking.  A broad range of business and community interests in Maryland have spoken out, including dozens of business owners who warned Maryland policymakers of the risk fracking posed to the state’s thriving tourism and sustainable agriculture sectors. In addition, a 2015 poll found that a majority of Marylanders support a long-term moratorium on fracking. Local communities have used zoning laws to enact bans, including Mountain Lake Park and Friendsville in Garrett County, Prince George’s, Montgomery and Charles County. Other local ban efforts are underway.

What You Can Do

Potomac Riverkeeper Network and the Coalition need your support and your voices to fight fracking in Maryland. Our message to the next General Assembly must be loud and clear – fracking endangers public health and our environment, and has no place in Maryland. We support a robust Maryland economy built on a clean environment and sustainable energy resources.  

To join our campaign, sign up for our email list and follow us on Facebook. Never forget that a strong grassroots movement can win this fight! We have seen it succeed in New York, where the collective actions of thousands of people led Governor Cuomo to ban fracking permanently. Don’t forget to visit www.DontFrackMD.org and follow Don’t Frack Maryland on Facebook to learn more and get involved!

Our Day in Court Over Lax Coal Ash Permit at Possum Point

Coal ash ponds at Possum Point, 2015

Coal ash ponds at Possum Point, 2015

On September 27th, Potomac Riverkeeper presented its case against the discharge permit issued to Dominion by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), allowing Dominion to drain its largest coal ash pit at Possum Point power plant into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River. Under the permit, Dominion is allowed to dump about 200 million gallons of coal ash tainted wastewater into these waterways with lax permit limits that will not protect aquatic life from long term contamination from coal ash metals, including arsenic, nickel, cadmium and selenium.

Greg Buppert of the Southern Environmental Law Center argued the case for us, and did a great job of explaining why DEQ utterly failed to comply with federal and state law when it neglected to require pollution limits based on current treatment technology. The permit also failed to set limits that considered the fact that parts of Quantico Creek are already burdened with high levels of nickel, affecting benthic life in the sediment that is the foundation of the aquatic food chain.

Potomac Riverkeeper filed its appeal in early 2016, after filing formal comments and rallying public opposition to this “dewatering” of Possum Point’s coal ash waste pits. We were supported by a standing room only crowd at the January 14, 2016 State Water Control Board hearing, when the state approved the permit despite overwhelming public opposition. Opposing us in this effort are the Virginia Attorney General’s office representing DEQ, and attorneys for Dominion Power.

We also benefited from an appeal filed by Prince William County, which led to a settlement agreement with Dominion in which the company commits to voluntarily treat the coal ash wastewater at a higher level than DEQ required in the permit, using a second phase of treatment to remove additional metals. As of today, that system has worked well to keep metals in the discharge at extremely low levels. While we applaud this voluntary effort, the fact remains that the permit allows Dominion to discharge metals at much higher levels. As a clean water watchdog group, we can only enforce violations of permit limits, not voluntary efforts, so it is critically important for this permit, and any others issued by DEQ, that they contain enforceable limits that protect our waterways from pollution. Unfortunately we cannot rely on voluntary arrangements to keep pollution out of the Potomac. 

Our lawsuit against this weak permit is only one element of our ongoing campaign to make sure that Dominion is held accountable for decades of coal ash pollution from Possum Point that has burdened the already stressed Potomac River and Quantico Creek with legacy metals contamination. The Creek also supports a small commercial catfish harvest. Protecting the aquatic life in these waters, and the public’s right to fish and recreate here, is at the core of Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s mission.

Next up will be a state permit that determines how the millions of tons of toxic coal ash are disposed of. Dominion would like to leave them in a massive, unlined, leaking pit that would continue to contaminate nearby waters for generations. Potomac Riverkeeper believes this waste should be removed from the site and disposed of in a lined landfill far from any waterways. These are not mere academic concerns; the stretch of the Potomac next to Possum Point is one of three critical spawning areas for the entire Chesapeake Bay striped bass fishery, and Quantico Creek is a popular recreational fishing spot for smallmouth bass and catfish.

If you’re a real litigation junkie, you can read our court briefs: Opening brief. Reply brief.

Listen to Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks on WERA 96.7 FM talk about our work as Riverkeepers to ensure swimmable, drinkable and fishable waters and about the Possum Point coal ash case.

Upper Potomac Riverkeeper's Partnership Effort to Preserve the Savage River

Potomac Riverkeeper Network proudly announces a partnership-based effort to preserve the pristine nature of Savage River and its watershed. For over a year the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper has been working with the Mid-Atlantic Council Trout Unlimited and the Savage River Watershed Association. The focus of this effort has been to explore options and strategies for protecting the waters—and the way of life—that characterize the picturesque, wild, and winding Savage River in Western Maryland’s Garrett County.

To move forward with this effort, a community organization called the Savage River Wild & Scenic Work Group was recently formed. “Our goal is to develop a holistic management plan for the Savage River watershed that will preserve the natural wild beauty and maintain the pristine water quality for future generations,” said Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls. “We have spent many months researching ways to coordinate and align all those with a stake in protecting the river, and felt that the Partnership Wild and Scenic Rivers Program was a good fit because of the community-based approach,” continued Brent.  

Sewage Discharges Pose Serious Public Health Risk in Alexandria

Oronoco Bay covered in algae.

Oronoco Bay covered in algae.

As the City of Alexandria considers a stormwater utility fee to reduce polluted stormwater from running into the streams and the Potomac River, we want to remind the city and it’s residents that Alexandria has a significant storm water problem that poses a serious public health risk. Millions of gallons of untreated sewage discharge into the Potomac River at Oronoco Bay every year. Every time it rains, stormwater rushes into the storm drains and combines with sewage, which overwhelms their combined sewage and stormwater system (CSS) and dumps upwards of 150 million gallons per year of untreated sewage into the Potomac River and Hunting Creek. 

While the city is developing a Long Term Control Plan to deal with combined sewer and stormwater overflows at outfalls 002, 003, 004 discharging into Hunting Creek, outfall 001 discharges directly into Oronoco Bay. Outfall 001 discharges roughly half of Alexandria's sewage laden stormwater into the Potomac River - approximately 70 million gallons a year - where people paddle, wade fish and frequently recreate. 

Infograph from SwimGuide.org

Infograph from SwimGuide.org

The city is beginning to redevelop its waterfront, encouraging more people to come down to the river and significantly increasing on-the-water activity (similar to Georgetown Waterfront). After a rain event sewage laden stormwater combined with toilet paper, condoms and trash washing off city streets, flushes into Oronoco Bay. This is not only visually appalling but will continue to increase public health risks as more and more people come into direct contact with sewage. Oronoco Bay is currently covered from one side to the other with algae (and floating trash and debris dumping from 001) as a result of excess nutrient pollution. Algae can also pose a public health risk. Yet, the city says it does not have money to fix this problem. 

Senator Scott Surovell, who represents more than 200,000 constituents down river from Alexandria, recently wrote a letter to Virginia DEQ demanding Alexandria address outfall 001 as Alexandria sewage and stormwater pollution directly impacts the health of the river and the Chesapeake Bay. 

It is important to emphasize that Alexandria's identity and future tourism is directly tied to the Potomac River. Alexandria business leaders and citizens would never support allowing this problem to continue if they actually knew about it. The public deserves to know that investments in stormwater are good economic investments for the city of Alexandria.

Revisions to the LTCP are happening this month, and we will continue to push for the inclusion of outfall 001. Help us remind Alexandria’s local political leadership that polluting our rivers with third world sewage treatment strategies is unacceptable.

Alexandria sends raw sewage mixture into PotomacPeggy Fox, WUSA9, September 16, 2016

Alexandria spews 11 million gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac each year, Patricia Sullivan, The Washington Post, October 10, 2016

Alexandria plans to let raw sewage keep flowing into PotomacPeggy Fox, WUSA9, October 12, 2016

Our Day in Court on Sewage Sludge

After 6 years of fighting, on September 16, 2016, Shenandoah Riverkeeper finally had our chance to tell a state court judge in Richmond why Virginia’s statewide permit allowing farmers to apply treated sewage sludge (known as biosolids) to their fields fails to prevent overuse of sludge and pollution of nearby waterways, including the Shenandoah River. Sarah Fox of the Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Public Representation argued the case for us, and she did a fantastic job.

In simple terms, Sarah laid out the fundamental problems with this permit – the fact that it allows use of sludge on farmland on karst, a porous geologic formation that underlies much of the Shenandoah Valley. Karst is like Swiss cheese with a thin layer of soil on top. Any sludge that isn’t absorbed into the soil will run off into nearby rivers or mix with groundwater, causing contamination and nutrient pollution of the river. 

In addition, the state permit gives too much flexibility in how much sludge can be applied to one field, resulting in documented “over-application” that leads to phosphorus saturated soils and nutrient runoff into the Shenandoah and ultimately Chesapeake Bay.

We are in court to argue this because Virginia's legislature removed any local control over the use of sludge as a farm fertilizer. While Virginia law prohibits the application of sludge in a manner that threatens health or the environment, the regulations approved by the state do not meet that high standard. The result is pollution to our river and danger to our communities.

Opposing us were the Virginia Attorney General’s office, the Virginia Farm Bureau, and a trade association representing sewage treatment plants. Judge Joi Taylor of the Richmond City Circuit Court heard our appeal, and said she would likely issue a ruling in a month.  Stay tuned…

This case is a great example of the critical role citizen enforcers like Shenandoah Riverkeeper has in making sure government does its job to protect our waterways and public health. It also highlights that many of our legal actions can take years to resolve and are complicated to explain as they move through the courts.

If you’re a real litigation junkie, you can read our court brief and learn more about the case here.

NRG to Pay $1M Penalty for Pollution

In 2013, Potomac Riverkeeper, Patuxent Riverkeeper and Food & Water Watch filed a notice of intent to sue to NRG. NRG operates coal powered generating stations at Chalk Point on the Patuxent River and at Dickerson on the Potomac River. One of our main concerns was that NRG tried to persuade the state to let it offset the nitrogen pollution from its plants with reductions made elsewhere. Pollution “trading” such as this can cause hot spot of pollution, usually in lower income communities, causing a serious environmental justice problem. Our action forced Maryland to get involved and file its own suit.

We've been a full party in the case, sitting across the table from NRG and Maryland state attorneys for the past three years hammering out this settlement. And it's a good one -- holding NRG to a tight schedule to eliminate its nutrient pollution, and setting up a $1 million environmental benefit fund to pay for river restoration projects.

The two plants began discharging impermissible levels of nitrogen into the rivers in 2010. The problem occurred after “scrubbers” were installed to comply with Maryland’s Healthy Air Act, which required emissions reductions of mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants. The plants’ wastewater treatment facilities could not handle the additional waste from the scrubbers, resulting in excessive nitrogen discharges into the rivers.

Nitrogen is one of the primary pollutants causing water quality problems in the Bay and its tributaries. It feeds algae blooms, which decay and trigger the formation “dead zones” where fish and shellfish can’t get enough dissolved oxygen from the water.

This case is a great example of the critical role citizen enforcers like the Potomac and Patuxent Riverkeepers have in holding polluters accountable, and making sure government does its job. It also highlights that many of our legal actions can take years to resolve and are complicated to explain as they move through the courts.

Additional information:

Consent decree

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/maryland-settles-lawsuit-with-power-plant-operators-alleging-nitrogen-pollution/2016/08/29/c77288de-6df4-11e6-9705-23e51a2f424d_story.html

http://www.bayjournal.com/article/energy_company_nrg_to_pay_1_million_penalty_for_power_plant_water_pollution

Mercury Still a Problem 66 Years Later on the South Fork

Last month, the DuPont Company announced its plan to stop mercury from contaminating the South River, which is one of the leading tributaries for the South Fork of the Shenandoah.

For more than 20 years, DuPont leaked mercury from the textile plant into the South River, eventually ending up in the Shenandoah River. DuPont stopped leaking mercury in 1950. Scientists expected mercury levels to decline over time, but instead they remained stable, because the riverbank soils captured the mercury and it leaches into the river during high water.

DuPont plans to remediate and restore the riverbanks starting in Constitution Park down in Waynesboro, Virginia.

While we acknowledge DuPont’s commitment to the community, and agreeing to stabilize the riverbank by employing a impermeable barrier and covering that with additional clay, soil and native plants, it has been 66 years – that’s right – 66 years since the active leaking stopped. 

This is not a day for ribbon cutting and balloons; this is a day a long-time in coming. 

The South River Science Team was established in 2001 and began conducting studies to understand how mercury enters the South River and why mercury in South River and South Fork Shenandoah River fish continue to remain elevated some 60 years after it was used at the former DuPont facility in Waynesboro, Virginia.

Mercury is a neurotoxin and it is not to be trifled with. Fish consumption advisories have been in place on the South River and South Fork Shenandoah River since the mid-1970s.

No fish other than trout should be eaten from the South River. Stocked trout have been tested and are safe to eat. No more than two meals – ½ pound each or the size of your hand – of fish per month should be eaten from the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should not eat fish from these waters.

Think about it. 66 years have passed, and we are still dealing with a serious environmental and public health problem at the very headwaters of the Shenandoah River.

Additional info & resources:

Interactive map of the South River Science Team showing the fish consumption advisories: http://southriverscienceteam.org/map/

Purpose and roles of the SRST: http://southriverscienceteam.org/what-is-srst/

SRST Mercury Fact Sheet: http://southriverscienceteam.org/news/fact-sheets/SR_No2.pdf

SRST newsletter going into great detail as to how they are going to perform the remediation: http://southriverscienceteam.org/news/newsletters/2016/UPDATE_2016_First%20Half_final.pdf

Mostly Good News for Virginia Ag in Governor’s Budget

Earlier this month, Governor McAuliffe announced Virginia’s $61 million investment in agricultural best management practices. The governor said as one of our largest private industries, Virginia’s agricultural sector is a key partner in our fight to curb pollution and improve water quality.

He also noted that this investment in agriculture best management practices will give farmers across the Commonwealth the tools and resources necessary to combat runoff, toxins, and byproducts in the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries. He also said that preserving and improving water resources are essential to our economic future and quality of life.

This is the largest single investment since the Water Quality Improvement Fund’s creation in 1998.

We congratulate the Governor on getting this measure through the General Assembly and helping to protect the Shenandoah River and the other rivers throughout the Commonwealth. I firmly believe that a healthy environment leads to a healthy economy. Best management practices implemented on our family farms and forests are good for both the Virginia economy and the environment.

In addition, Governor McAuliffe announced that Virginia will invest $850,000 over the biennial budget to expand its international trade initiatives promoting Virginia’s agriculture and forestry products around the world. With these new funds, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) will open two new trade representative offices in Southeast Asia and the Middle East/Northern Africa region, as well as create a new Richmond-based position to support the newly enhanced global trade network.

Of the 72 original landowners with cattle in the river, we are now down to about 36 individuals who, despite the availability of 100% state and federal funding for removal have failed to remove and exclude their cattle from the river over the last 2 years.

Of the 72 original landowners with cattle in the river, we are now down to about 36 individuals who, despite the availability of 100% state and federal funding for removal have failed to remove and exclude their cattle from the river over the last 2 years.

Unfortunately, the budget does not provide additional money for VDACS’ Agricultural Stewardship program that promotes stewardship of our land and water resources. This program gives the farmer an opportunity to correct a water pollution problem voluntarily before any enforcement action is taken. The Agricultural Stewardship program can also be an opportunity to educate all parties involved regarding best management practices and agriculture. 

Right now, this program is awash in submitted complaints, many of them concerning Shenandoah River water quality issues. Instead of providing additional resources to quickly address the problem, VDACS has asked that organizations such as the Shenandoah Riverkeeper severely curtail our submissions as they are struggling to handle their current workload.

Let’s hope that in the near future, Governor McAuliffe sees fit to provide VDACS sufficient resources so that the Agricultural Stewardship office can do its job.

Daily Limits on Bacteria to Protect Public Health

Washington, DC, like many older east coast cities, has a public health and water pollution problem when rainfall overwhelms its outdated sewer system and causes high volumes of untreated sewage bacteria to be dumped into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Animal waste washed from the street and parks into storm drains adds to the problem, which is acute now that record numbers of people are getting on the water to paddle, swim and fish in our rivers. Potomac Riverkeeper has been working to address this serious problem for over ten years, using both advocacy and litigation to compel DC Water and the EPA to reduce sewage pollution and improve water quality.   Unfortunately, recent action by EPA threatens to undermine the progress we’ve made, forcing us to take our concerns to court. 

This week, our attorneys at Earthjustice submitted a civil complaint to the U.S. District Court for D.C. on behalf of Potomac Riverkeeper Network, the Anacostia Riverkeeper, and the Kingman Park Civic Association. We are suing the EPA for approving "total maximum daily loads" (TMDLs) for E. coli in the Anacostia River, the Potomac River, Rock Creek, and their tributaries that fail to meet D.C.'s water quality standards for protecting public health when people recreate in and on these waterways.

 "These pollution caps approved by the EPA do not account for short-term spikes in fecal bacteria concentrations that occur after rainfall,” argues Phillip Musegaas, Legal Director for Potomac Riverkeeper Network. “This violates the District's water quality standards, and puts people at risk of serious illness."

All of the water bodies covered by the bacteria TMDLs are designated as Class A, meaning they are intended to be clean enough for primary contact recreation uses like swimming and kayaking. For heavily-used aquatic recreation areas, like the DC area, the EPA recommends that water quality criteria include a second (usually higher) concentration level to address short-term exposures.

“Overlooking daily limits is dangerous,” says Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks. “We need to guarantee the safety of our waters in the D.C. area on a daily basis to protect the health and safety of our river users.”

In fact, fecal bacteria concentrations in local waters violate standards as much as 41 percent of the time in some areas. The data below is based on D.C.'s 2014 water quality report to Congress:

We are asking the court to declare the EPA's approval of D.C.'s max loads "unlawful and arbitrary" and direct the federal government to change standards within a year. 

Download our complaint

Learn more about what we are doing about sewage overflows.

In the news:

http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/housing-complex/blog/20830851/lawsuit-challenges-regular-presence-of-high-fecal-bacteria-in-dcs-rivers

http://www.bayjournal.com/article/groups_sue_epa_over_cleanup_standards_for_dcs_sewage_tainted_rivers

http://dcist.com/2016/08/epa_rivers_lawsuit.php

Low Water, High Temps, Nutrients = Algae!

We received almost an inch of rain yesterday in addition to the localized storms that have been rumbling through the Valley this entire week.

It certainly has been an interesting season as river levels have stayed at or above normal most of the spring and summer. Last week, river levels finally dropped to normal summer pool conditions and as soon as that happened we started seeing algae up and down the river. 

The free floating algae we’ve seen in the water column, called planktonic, is what gives the water its peagreen color.

We’ve observed algae growing on rocks on the bottom and on plants growing in the water. The algae that clings to the bottom like a spongy, gooey mess is sometimes called rock snot. The algae growing out into the water column but attached to the river bottom comprise the larger filamentous algae looks like seaweed or long mermaid hair.

But we have also noticed this season, that we have more of the good grasses, the subaquatic vegetation, growing in the Shenandoah River. The last few years we have not seen as much of the good grasses so this is good news indeed.

Subaquatic vegetation contributes to the biodiversity of the river and makes for a healthier ecosystem. It gives small fish a place to hide, filters out the sediment floating in the river and allows sunlight to penetrate to the river bottom and allows the grasses to outcompete the algae.

In years past, we observed more star grass than other grasses. Star grass can be identified by its little yellow starlike flower at the very top of the plant. This year, we are seeing far more wild celery than star grass but star grass is definitely still around in addition to common waterweed and coontail.

Lower water levels and high temps are two ingredients the algae loves. The third item needed in the algae recipe is high levels of nutrients that come in the form of runoff, primarily, but not exclusively from agricultural fields. Those three things – low water, high temps and high level of nutrients give you the algae trifecta.

We have been trying for the past several years to get the Shenandoah River placed on Virginia’s Impaired Water List for excessive algae or exceedingly high levels of nutrients. Having the state list the river as impaired by the algae blooms and nutrient pollution would force the state to eventually develop regional pollution limits for the Shenandoah. Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has turned a deaf ear toward us, saying that there are no nutrient standards for flowing water and that trying to assess narrative statements, in the form of complaint letters from anglers, paddlers, swimmers, birders, hikers, landowners, and anybody else who enjoys using the river, is too difficult of a job for them to assess.

This year, they have nonetheless brought on staff two technicians evaluating the expanse of the algae in the river. While it is a start, algae blooms on the river have been going on far too long for the Commonwealth to turn a blind eye and do nothing about it.

To keep up to date on river conditions and our efforts to eliminate algae, listen to me, Shenandoah Riverkeeper Mark Frondorf, every Monday and Friday morning at 8:40am on The River 95.3FM. And follow me on Facebook.

‘We’ve primed the system': Why disgusting toxic blue-green algae blooms seem increasingly common, The Washington Post, July 25, 2016

The Fight Against Toxic Coal Ash Contamination Continues

A recent Post article about Maryland’s withdrawal of its challenge to Dominion’s Possum Point waste water permit gives the impression the fight over Dominion’s “cap-in-place” coal ash plan is over. For Brian West, who lives 705 feet from Dominion’s Possum Point coal ash ponds, the fight is just beginning. And our challenge continues.

The same lab at Virginia Tech that analyzed many Flint homes also looked at West’s drinking water. The results? West’s water showed lead levels between four and 10 times the US Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” for lead. Samples collected from West’s drinking water and some of his neighbors wells have revealed hexavalent chromium, arsenic, cobalt, aluminum, barium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, nickel, zinc, potassium, vanadium, boron and strontium—many of which are carcinogenic—all are found in coal ash.

West and many of his neighbors believe millions of tons of toxic coal ash Dominion stored next to his property in unlined pits for the last few decades have contaminated their drinking wells. They have good reason to worry: last year North Carolina health officials tested 360 drinking wells near Duke Energy coal ash ponds and 330 exceeded standards for one or more contaminants. 21 wells had elevated hexavalent chromium levels, while another 90 wells had elevated levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium, chemicals linked to blood problems and neurological effects.

Dominion, which is being investigated by the EPA for dumping 27.5 million gallons of untreated ash water into the Potomac River, says there’s no evidence of a connection between its coal ash stockpiles and contaminated ground water impacting drinking wells. Yet for 30 years, Dominion has documented extensive ground water contamination from its own ground water monitoring wells at Possum Point.

Contaminated groundwater that is also discharging to the river according to Dominion’s own report: “The primary environmental receptor for groundwater associated with Ash Pond D and Ash Pond E is Quantico Creek… Groundwater flows south from the site toward Quantico Creek where it discharges into the creek.” 

Despite an outcry from state lawmakers, landowners, commercial fisherman and downstream communities along multiple affected Virginia Rivers – the Potomac, James, New, and Elizabeth – Governor McAuliffe has agreed to let Dominion dump treated coal ash waste water into public waterways. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) – overseen by the Governor – has issued permits to treat hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated ash water to levels far weaker than permits issued in NC to Duke Energy for the same purpose. This is the same VDEQ whose top regulator accepted a lavish trip to the Master’s Golf Tournament from Dominion.

McAuliffe and Virginia DEQ currently support Dominion’s proposed “cap in place” plan to seal the remaining millions of tons of toxic coal ash where it currently exists without modern synthetic liners. That’s the cheap solution Dominion would like to see, but it allows metals to continue to leak into public water ways and threaten drinking water wells like Brian West’s.

A recent study by Duke University revealed that the cap-in-place approach actually accelerates leakage of certain ash contaminants like arsenic into surrounding groundwater. States like North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia have are now requiring “clean closure” instead of “cap in place” because it requires ash to be moved to modern landfills with an appropriate synthetic liner. These landfills are located away from rivers and drinking supplies. South Carolina utility, Santee Cooper, calls the clean closure plan a “win, win, win” for the local environment, economy, and the utility.

The measures were taken to protect public health and Governor McAuliffe owes it to the people of Virginia to do the same. Citizens like West have been organizing across the state in anticipation of upcoming public hearings on Dominion’s draft solid waste permit. Others will join the “March on the Mansion” on July 23rd to take their message of drinking water safety directly to the Governor.

Coal ash is the largest source of industrial pollution in the country. How states like Virginia and Maryland (currently revising it's own coal ash rules) address this issue will have an impact on other states grappling with hundreds of unlined, leaking coal ash ponds.

The Governor has a choice: he can regulate the disposal of coal ash in a way that recognizes the sound science of Duke’s researchers and protects our children or he can allow our public waterways to continue to be the dumping grounds for a well connected industry. Our rivers, our drinking water supplies deserve better! 

Email me if you want to get involved in our fight against cap-in-place. Join the march on July 23rd in Richmond to say loud and clear – keep toxic coal ash from contaminating our rivers!

Atlantic Coast Pipeline Threatens Shenandoah River

The proposed construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would impact the headwaters of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

Earlier this spring, Dominion asked the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to abandon its stewardship role on 10 protected private properties (totaling 4,567 acres) in western Virginia to make way for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. This is a transmission line to get fracked gas out of Pennsylvania and West Virginia and ship it down to North Carolina and Portsmouth, Virginia. If constructed, this pipeline will traverse the South River, one of two rivers that join up down by Waynesboro to form the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. 

We are opposed to the construction of the pipeline because we do not believe it can be built without hurting the habitat of a number of endangered species including the Virginia Big-Eared bat and the habitat of several other species by fragmenting the forest, isolating populations and increasing forest edge that threaten the survival of these species. This fragmentation also promotes invasive species and the spread of disease in the George Washington National Forest.

Finally, sedimentation caused by construction could threaten the water quality especially those of special concern such as native brook trout streams and the headwater streams that supply the water used by the Shenandoah Valley as well as destroying what makes the Shenandoah Valley so beautiful and special.

In its 50 year history, Virginia Outdoors Foundation has only granted such diversions 14 times. These tend to be very small acreages for projects that are clearly in the public interest, such as a sliver of land for VDOT to create a turning lane or replace a dangerous bridge.

Dominion has gone too far with this unprecedented request. Virginia Outdoors Foundation should not be asked to allow destruction of conservation values on these properties and risk damaging its relationship with current and future easement landowners to build an unneeded pipeline that offers no local benefits and puts special cultural and ecological landscapes at risk.

Opposition to ACP is Building

For a project this big, it takes several organizations, businesses, and people across two states to organize an opposition. The Allegheny Blue-Ridge Alliance (ABRA) is a coalition of 50 organizations founded in September 2014 to oppose the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Shenandoah Riverkeeper, James River Association, and Waterkeepers Chesapeake are active in this coalition. Visit ABRA’s website to follow the latest developments: http://www.abralliance.org

The Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC) is an organization of citizen volunteers, conservation groups, and environmental scientists convened in response to Dominion’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline across the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests and the adjacent mountains and valleys. Its primary focus is the approximately 120-mile segment of the proposed pipeline route from the Tygart River in Randolph County, West Virginia to the James River in Nelson County, Virginia. DPMA has produced a series of story maps on the negative impacts of the ACP. For more info, visit: http://pipelineupdate.org

What You Can Do

Urge Virginia Outdoors Foundation to:

  • support the clean water, wildlife habitat, working farmland, rural character, and scenic views protected by the conservation easements, and
  • preserve the essential trust that exists between landowners and VOF, critical to the future of land conservation in Virginia.

Send a copy to your state legislator. Comments must include the sender’s name, address, and daytime phone number for VOF to include in public record. Visit DPMC’s story map on Dominion’s Pipeline Threatens Protected Private Land.

Ms. Stephanie Ridder, Chairman
c/o Brett Glymph, Executive Director
Virginia Outdoors Foundation
39 Garrett St., Suite 200
Warrenton, VA 20186
bglymph@vofonline.org

UPDATE [09.12.2016] A new study of the mid-Atlantic’s demand for natural gas reveals that two proposed and highly controversial interstate pipelines are not needed because existing pipelines can supply more than enough fuel to power the region through 2030. 

Be Ready for Flash Floods - it could happen here, too

This past Thursday and Friday our West Virginian neighbors down around Greenbrier County, only 150 – 200 miles from us as the crow flies, suffered violent flash flooding that took the lives of 25 people and that number will probably climb this week.

And this flooding actually came much closer to us than you might think. All of that rain fell on the western side of the George Washington National Forest. If it had fallen on the eastern side of the mountain ridge, all of that rain would have poured into the North Fork of the Shenandoah and made its way to Front Royal.

Emergencies can happen at any time. Many of the towns dotting the Shenandoah are within the 100 year and 500 year flood plain. It really is not a question of if, but when. Now is a good time to prepare for a flood, let alone a flash flood.

If you hear about the possibility of a flash flood in your area:

  • Get to higher ground immediately.  Don’t wait until first responders start alerting people to move.
  • Learn how to Turn off utilities
  • Do not walk through moving water. Six inches of moving water can make you fall. If you have to walk in the water, use a stick to check the firmness of the ground in front of you.
  • Do not drive into flooded areas. Twelve inches of water can begin floating a car. Just turn around and seek higher ground.
  • Before an emergency happens, Build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan.
  • The emergency kit should contain enough food, water and other supplies to get you through 72 hours. Don’t forget your meds. Don’t forget food for your pets.
  • Develop a family communications plan so you will know how to contact one another. 

More info:

Once-in-a-Thousand-Year Flooding Devastates West Virginia, Killing At Least 23, DemocracyNow.org, June 28, 2016

Information on West Virginia flood recovery efforts:

Find supplies drop-off centers: http://www.statejournal.com/…/list-of-flood-relief-donation…

http://www.register-herald.com/…/article_62116102-3a07-11e6…

http://wvutoday.wvu.edu/…/wvu-mobilizes-efforts-to-help-wv-…

Sign-up to volunteer here: http://www.volunteerwv.org/2/index.cfm

Make a donation: www.unitedwayGreenbrier.org/Flood

Check Greenbrier Valley Flood Recovery Facebook page for more updates: https://www.facebook.com/GBV2016FloodRelief/?fref=nf

Acting as the Conscience of Our Own Government

I recently found myself in a discussion with Phillip Musegaas, our legal director, assessing our organization’s work and reflecting on how we are doing in meeting our mission of addressing the greatest threats facing the health of our shared river.

As we talked, we tallied the legal cases with which we are involved -- today, we are active in 17 cases, and all of them aim to reduce pollution to our river.

More interesting than the sheer number of cases is the fact that only 3 out of 17 involve major dischargers (sewer treatment plants or industrial facilities) with failing treatment and a series of permit violations. The remaining 14 cases are permit challenges, regulatory challenges, and other actions intended to push our state and federal governments to do their job correctly.

During our conversation I began to ponder the question of our role as river advocates, and would like to pose it to our members: if our work aims to push state and federal governments to do their jobs, then are we acting as the conscience of our own government?

The Possum Point coal ash case highlights the failings of our regulatory system. In this case, we are absolutely certain that -- without our deep involvement -- our state and federal government would have continued their complicity with Dominion Power by allowing Virginia’s own state utility to cover up a massive pollution issue that, if not stopped, is sure to cement a legacy of persistent pollution.

Make no bones about it, if Dominion is allowed to either discharge all of the water that has been stewing in their waste ash for decades, or just cap all of this nasty waste in place, we will regret this decision for generations -- and possibly for geologic time. This ash waste, which has been discharging toxic metals into the Potomac for decades and continues to do so today, will spoil Quantico Creek and the Potomac River for thousands of years.

We’re faced with a toxic legacy that could make the catfish, striped bass, oysters, and any other natural resource worthless. We’re talking about ruining an entire ecosystem, harming bald eagles and endangered sturgeon.

All of this avoidable. But not without groups like ours, and supporters like you, who step up to these challenges with righteous conviction.

We are at a point in time where we can affect history. It has taken the full focus of our Riverkeeper, and numerous staff, to generate legal challenges, grassroots pressure, press coverage, political, and even student action just to slow down this train to prevent a wreck.

Allow me to tie this case back into the reality that Potomac Riverkeeper Network acts as the conscience of our government. The strong environmental laws we rely on to protect vital natural resources are being eroded. As days turn into weeks, months, and years, state and federal agencies have become cozy with polluters. They’ve become complacent, and they are convinced that the flexibility in our laws should be used to allow more pollution -- instead of less.

Unfortunately, as a country we have been here before. Emerging from the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars, rapid economic expansion resulted in the widespread, catastrophic fouling of our nation’s rivers. Fortunately, citizen and political action in the 1960s turned the tide and gave us the Clean Water Act, the primary strengths of which are the regulatory and enforcement powers established for the federal government. We learned the hard way that when environmental laws are left to the states, the states often “race to the bottom,” resulting in weak or non-existent regulations, and a virtual abandonment of environmental laws.

Sadly, in my view we are at risk today of turning back the clock on critical environmental protections, and are allowing the hue and cry for limited government and state’s powers to lead to fear and retrenchment among the very regulators we rely on to protect our precious rivers.

I ask you to consider what our rivers would look like if we weren’t taking direct action to protect the Potomac watershed against our most pressing threats.