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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Governor McAuliffe: You Can Run, But You Can’t HIDE!


This is a guest post by my coworker Carolyn Reilly. Carolyn lives in Virginia, and her family's farm could be severely impacted should the Mountain Valley Pipeline be built. Activist in Virginia and beyond will March on the Mansion on July 23rd. Enjoy!

by Carolyn Reilly, Community Organizer
The trees are still this morning, yet life and motion flutter all around them. Birds flit from branch to branch, calling and singing of the dawn. But the tree trunk is steadfast and solid, no wind to bend and sway its body. Underneath the ground, there’s a root web, connecting these breathing beauties. I believe there must be spirit and life that dwells within each and every one. They are their own little worlds with life swarming and dwelling on and under each tree. To disrupt and destroy hundreds of thousands of trees just to bury a pipe underground and pump a fracked fossil fuel is murder and mass destruction of habitat.
Oh! But the Governor of Virginia (McAuliffe) wanted to plant a tree; a humble American chestnut, inside the Smith Mountain Lake State Park, where over 100 water crossings upstream would be made by the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. And not to mention thou-sands of trees clear cut and burned. Several pipeline fighters and I decided to let the Governor know how we felt about this and how contradictory it is as he has been supportive of two massive fracked gas transmission pipelines proposed to be buried in the state of Virginia.
We gathered and carpooled on a cool, wet day in early May. Our travels were delayed because of the rain and traffic. I received a phone call from my fellow co-worker Sharon Ponton who was on the ground at the State Park; “McAuliffe may not make it for the tree-planting. He’s running late,” she said. As we meandered our way through the rain and back country roads, we found ourselves behind a shiny black Suburban with Virginia government tags. All in the van were excited as we felt sure we were following the Governor (who wasn’t late at all!). The vehicle took a sharp turn to the right, just a half mile before the entrance to the State Park. Our van-load of protectors and protestors careened around the corner, following the state vehicle. It sped away and we quickly realized we’d be better off to get to the tree-planting location at the park, even if the Governor didn’t.
In fact, we discovered that he was not coming to plant a tree and sent Molly Ward, chair of Virginia’s Department of Natural Resources, in his place. We obtained a permit from the State Park, giving us the right to protest and the seven of us stood in the cold rain, calmly proclaiming our chant for protection: “Save our trees! Save our water! No Pipelines!” We respectfully abstained during the ceremonial speeches and held out to shout our refrain just as the tree was being placed into the ground. The sacred act of planting a tree is beautiful; a young tree nestling down into the welcoming warmth of spring soil, its roots reaching and connecting to the web of life that sustains us all. And the Governor? His state vehicle zipped by minutes after – on the run from the trees and the people who protect them.
Other Virginia citizens and residents have gathered and garnered energy in the movement to protect our state’s environment. From fracking to Coal Ash, people are meeting to share their experiences and concerns surrounding climate change and the indifference of big business when it comes to the health of communities. For example, Coal Ash dumpsites throughout central Virginia have been leaching contaminants into wells and waterways. Utility giant, Dominion recently purchased a neighboring property purportedly to create a “larger buffer” around its Bremo Power Plant, but soon after a report released by Duke University’s Dr. Avner VenGosh indicated that this same plant has been leaching heavy metal toxins into ground water. Utility corporations rush to apply and receive permits from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VADEQ) to de-water and close coal ash ponds in communities from Lebanon to Chesapeake. Instead of 1 million tons of coal ash at one Dominion plant, in depositions they admit the total is 3 million tons. The Governor’s inaction and lack of concern that our rivers and streams are being contaminated with “treated” toxic wastewater is astounding, and the belief that these utilities will be allowed to cap in place coal ash ponds when there is current proof they are leaking, contradicts his claim when running for Governor that he cares about the people and our environment.
Several of BREDL’s Virginia chapters are working to obtain fracking bans in the counties of Warren, Fredrick, Clarke and Nelson. Others are working with landowners to understand the consequences of biosolids being spread on their farmland. VADEQ says it’s safe, yet they fail to tell farmers they don’t test the sludge for pharmaceuticals or chemicals which are dangerous to their crops and livestock.
McAuliffe’s climate record has been spiraling down-ward since elected in 2013. Being a Governor who has ignored his constituents and tended to run when opposition shows up, citizens are calling him out – he can’t hide! As more and more people have continued to rise up and hold the governor accountable, a movement has grown, bringing together a variety of organizations, grassroots groups, advocates and faith leaders from communities throughout Virginia. A coalition has formed to organize a targeted action: March on the Mansion. Activists, landowners, people of faith, fighters for justice and many others will gather to rally and march to the Governor’s mansion in the state capital on July 23rd. At this Richmond event, we march for our land, clean water and climate. We demand that McAuliffe stand with the people, NOT corporate polluters! (Join in the movement and keep up to date at

Just as the roots of trees form a web of life and sup-port, so does the connection of many people who pull together and unite to fight in protecting our environment and the climate we in which we live. In Virginia, we are strong, and our roots spread wide to touch others as we encourage life and health for our communities. May we all be inspired by the strength, beauty, and life of trees and nourished from the encouragement our community roots give us.

Watch the powerful video from Virginia Student Environmental Action Coalition here:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Justice for All?


I was among the many that attended an April 7th hearing held by the North Carolina Advisory Committee of the US Commission on Civil Rights in Walnut Cove. The testimony from the community and panelists (well at least some of the panelists) was moving and powerful, in fact more than one Commission member was moved to tears. Our own Mr. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder was a panelist! He didn't move anyone to tears, however he did give us one of the most fascinating interludes. He proudly announced that  DEQ would do an environmental justice analysis of any new Duke Energy coal ash disposal site and would not issue a permit for a Duke Energy landfill unless the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Commission approved it. DEQ followed this up with a letter. You can read it here:

The day before, at a seminar held by the UNC Institute for the Environment, Secretary Reeder stated "We're gonna make sure we do an environmental justice screening on all landfills that handle coal ash associated with these Duke facilities...whether we permit sites on Duke facilities or off..."

On its face, DEQ's announcement seems like a good step forward on environmental justice. However, upon closer examination it does not appear so. Let's unpack this and see what is really going on between the lines. Among other things:

1. The US EPA has few legal mechanisms and little legal authority to deny a permit on environmental justice grounds. 
2. The US Commission on Civil Rights only has authority to make recommendations. There are no federal rules that require any agency to enact policy/regulations based on those recommendations.
3. The Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) does not give NC DEQ the legal authority to deny a permit on environmental justice grounds. There is no proposed rulemaking or legislation that would amend the CAMA to give them the authority to do so. DEQ is rather busy placing gag orders on state and local health officials.
4. I have asked several people within DEQ  for specific answers to the questions below. The answers re-stated the press release, which conflicts with some of the remarks made by Tom Reeder in public: 
  •  Will this apply to any new facility that accepts coal ash from Duke Energy? Including MSWLF's, new coal ash landfills owned by a third party, structural fills, or mine reclamations?
  • Will it apply to expansions or modifications of existing facilities that Duke Energy targets for coal ash disposal?
  • If a third-party waste disposal firm contracts with Duke Energy to dispose of coal ash, will this new policy apply to any a new or expanding facility that the third party selects to  dispose of the coal ash?
5. Why isn't DEQ looking at targeted communities, and communities already impacted by coal ash disposal?
6. What happens if Duke Energy ships coal ash out of state? Don't those communities deserve justice also? 
7. Lawsuits. Lots of them.
8. What if coal ash from other states is shipped into North Carolina? Will that make it "just?"

We need to open the drapes on DEQ's window dressing. They are setting up a straw man so that they can point fingers at the federal government and others; it is hard to know what the motivation is. If they really mean it- we will know. There will be a bill, or a rulemaking. Soon. 

#coalash #environmentaljustice #NCDEQ #DontExpectQuality

Thursday, April 14, 2016

UPDATE August 3: Coal Ash + Duke Energy=DEQ's Weird Science

So...what would you little maniacs like to do first? 

~Lisa, Weird Science, 1985


The story continues:

Testimony: McCrory called toxicologist Ken Rudo to his office to discuss do-not-drink letters for well owners near coal ash pits

Gov. Pat McCrory summoned state toxicologist Ken Rudo to his office in early 2015 for a meeting during which a McCrory staff member challenged the advisory Rudo had helped draft telling well owners near coal ash pits owned by Duke Energy not to drink their water, according to recent testimony given in a deposition by Rudo.

Friends, a recent headline:

Testimony: Duke Energy met with state officials to challenge water advisories

Duke Energy used its access at top levels of state government to challenge the do-not-drink warning and health screening level that had been vetted by state health experts for the carcinogen hexavalent chromium in private wells near the company’s coal ash basins, according to testimony by the state epidemiologist made public Thursday.


We have witnessed a true miracle in North Carolina! Hexavalent chromium (the toxic metal made infamous by Erin Brockovich)  has been rendered safe by sheer willpower and four magic words. Who, you might ask, is responsible for this feat? None other than our very own Mr. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder. Remember Tom? He was featured in a post from another blog of mine a while back: Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink: Part One. Since then, Tom got a promotion! Let's get back to the subject of this piece, hexavalent chromium aka Cr(VI).

Cr(VI) is an endocrine disrupting and carcinogenic toxic metal that is almost always produced by industrial processes, and is found in coal ash (magic words). The US EPA has been avoiding requirements to control this substance in drinking water, not because it isn't dangerous, it is-their own research shows that. After EPA proposed limits for Cr(VI) in 2010, the industry push back was so fierce it sent EPA running to put their recommended level back on the shelf.

Fast forward to North Carolina in 2014. The Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) was passed in 2014 following the Dan River spill. Testing private wells around Duke Energy (two more magic words) coal ash impoundments was one of the provisions of the law. Because Cr(VI) and vanadium had no established limits in North Carolina, DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) were tasked with coming up with recommendations, which they did. Testing began around the coal ash impoundments, and, among other nasty things, surprise, surprise Cr(VI) and vanadium started showing up above safe levels in people's wells.  Also under the enchantment of the magic words, baseline testing of private wells near Duke Energy's proposed coal ash landfill in Lee County started showing high levels of Cr(VI). This site has possible legacy contamination which was not investigated prior to the permitting of the landfill- although concerns were raised about it. DHHS sent out "do not drink" letters. Then...the magic happened. The combination of those four magic words coal ash + Duke Energy was so powerful that hexavalent chromium began to be detoxified. Amazing! Astounding!

Wait a minute- toxicologists and epidemiologists with DHHS and DEQ collaborated on the assessment of Cr(VI), using established risk-assessment methodology- including the process that the DEQ uses to analyze the public health risk of chemicals in groundwater. North Carolina law requires that toxic constituents in groundwater pose no more than a one-in a-million risk of cancer to the public. But they were no match for those four magic words, coal ash+Duke Energy. From emails obtained through a public records request:
"The MCL and the N.C. 2L standard for total chromium are dated and no longer protective of public health based on the principles by which the N.C. 2L standards are based.
 The excess life-time cancer risk estimates for the MCL and the N.C. 2L standards calculated using the 2L rule method result in an unacceptable level of excess life-time human cancer risk."

Health experts in North Carolina are not alone in their concern about the levels of Cr(VI) being found. In a recent article, Max Costa, professor of environmental medicine at New York University said of the amounts being found around coal ash (magic words) pits here: I wouldn’t want to drink water with 21 parts per billion hexavalent chromium. You’re drinking a carcinogen.” A year of fear and distrust in Dukeville- Environmental Health News April 18, 2016

Enter Dr. Randall Williams, state health director. He's a likeable kind of guy- he delivers babies for heaven's sake! (Full disclosure I have never trusted someone wearing a bow-tie...) Dr. Williams went on the road with Reeder. I caught their magic act in Lee County: 

What Reeder would have us believe is that municipalities all across North Carolina have Cr(VI) levels higher than the private wells around Duke Energy's coal ash impoundments. The snake oil Dr. Williams is selling is that vanadium is good for us, and that we should ignore the state's public health experts on Cr(VI). 

The "do drink" letters began arriving in communities across North Carolina. 

The media has done an excellent job of explaining:

Winston-Salem Journal: 

By lifting do-not-drink warning, state water and health regulators choose 1 in 700 cancer risk


Well owners say new guidance raises old coal ash concerns Read more at

Also deeply disturbing, a legislative committee, the Environmental Review Commission  is considering a bill that is frankly a gag order that will limit the ability of DEQ and DHHS to notifiy private well owners unless a contaminant exceeds a federal level- which ignores North Carolina's health based screening levels.

The public deserves a state agency that protects public health and the environment, not polluters. Recently, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources changed their name to the Department of Environmental Quality. We have a better idea DEQ: Don't Expect Quality.

#coalash #NCDEQ #DontExpectQuality #DukeEnergy #ncpol

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Occam's Razor or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? UPDATE

    "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem."[1]Translated from the Latin:"More things should not be used than are necessary."

    The theory of Occam's (or Ockham's) Razor is a philosophical belief that the simplest answer is usually the correct one.


It is truly amazing what our minds can get up to in the dark hours of the night. Struggling with the the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for months to get complete responses to numerous public records requests has been a frustrating experience. The requests pertained to the permitting of the Chatham and Lee County landfills where Duke Energy wants to dump millions of tons of dangerous coal ash. What was provided- including evidence of over 50 meetings, phone calls or other contact with no notes, and calls for permit decisions before the public comment period closed reflect  DEQ's willingness to manipulate the process to benefit Duke Energy.

However, this pales in comparison to a 2015 dinner date that Governor Pat McCrory had with DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart, and Duke CEO Lynn Good, which included an assortment of lawyers. WRAL. a Raleigh television station broke the story about the June 1st dinner. See story here: Governor, top Duke Energy officials met privately, won't say why. The attendees still won't say why. What we do know about the dinner was that it was not disclosed to the press, in discovery, or in the records provided to us. We also know that it was only 2 weeks after Duke Energy pleaded guilty to 9 criminal misdemeanors, 3 days after Charah, the company that owns the Lee and Chatham coal ash landfills was discovered operating without a permit for certain activities at the site, 4 days before the permits were issued for the 2 landfills, and before the DEQ cited Charah with violations- for which they were not fined. 

Now, I don't know about you, but this is as clear as coal ash to me. Stay tuned...

#coalash #DukeEnergy #BREDL

UPDATE October 19, 2016

At last night's gubernatorial debate, Governor McCrory spoke out about the June 1, 2015 dinner with Duke Energy and company.  From the WRAL story: 

"I didn't take notes," McCrory said during Tuesday's debate in answer to a question about the meeting. "I'll tell you what was discussed. I discussed that I was going to veto the bill that they wanted." He then recounted, "I said, 'I’m going to veto this thing. It's totally unacceptable, and I’m going to take it to the Supreme Court.'" 

Ummm- the Coal Ash Management Act was passed in 2014, and the bill he vetoed came in 2016.  Apparently he has had so many dinners with Duke Energy that he can't keep track. Or he is psychic...