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.