We Protect Your Rivers When Others Drop The Ball

Photo by Tusik Only

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network is your river protector year in and year out — we do the hard work of identifying pollution sources that contaminate the river and figuring out how to stop them. We step in to stop pollution when others fail to do so — when federal and state agencies can’t or won’t and when other nonprofits are too timid or too closely connected financially to the polluters. That’s when Riverkeepers are needed the most.   You can count on us. We are not afraid to take on the hard fights — and most of the time we win.

A good example is our recent work on toxic coal ash pollution. As you may be aware, the Trump administration has proposed to withdraw two major rules regulating coal ash pollution – both the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act rules that apply to legacy coal ash pits, and the Clean Water Act (CWA) rule, which applies to power plants that are still burning coal and generating ash. I worked on developing the CWA rule at EPA. It was a priority because discharges from coal fired plants were identified as the single largest source of toxic contamination into waterways nationwide from industries regulated under the CWA. Toxic coal ash contains really nasty stuff — selenium, lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, etc.– that can cause cancer and nervous system impacts such as cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems. The CWA rule that is proposed for withdrawal would control 30% of all toxic pollutants discharged into waterways by all industrial categories.  It would provide huge public health and clean water benefits for a very reasonable cost.

When the federal government fails to protect public health – and this is a clear case in my view – this is a perfect time for states to step in and for Riverkeepers to advocate for them to do so. So that’s exactly what we did. More than four years ago, Dean Naujoks, your Potomac Riverkeeper, first discovered that the toxic coal ash pits at the Dominion Plant at Possum Point in Northern Virginia were leaking into the Potomac and contaminating the drinking water wells of people living nearby. At that time, VA was going to let those pits continue to leak, and EPA was working to finish its rules that would have addressed the issue nationwide. But in a Riverkeeper group like ours, we don’t wait for the federal government to step because, as in this instance, sometimes it doesn’t come through.

Instead, Dean and our in-house lawyer, Phillip Musegaas, worked for four years to organize the support needed to get bipartisan legislation in place that would require safe disposal of almost 30 million tons of toxic coal ash in VA. That legislation was passed by the VA General Assembly and signed by the Governor earlier this year.

In Maryland, we became involved with the permits for the Morgantown and Dickerson plants, both of which still generate toxic coal ash. With the assistance of the Environmental Integrity Project, we were able to get the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) CWA discharge permits strengthened to include the effluent limits for the toxics that were in the draft EPA rule. The energy company sued and we supported MDE in successfully defending those permits in state court.

These are the kinds of concrete actions we take to stop pollution. We do this kind of work in every administration with whoever wants to work with us to stop pollution. Our focus is on the pollution, not the politics, which enables us to solve problems that others cannot or will not solve. 

We appreciate the support you give PRKN that enables us to solve the pollution problems that plague the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. You can count on us.