Water Health Educator - Promoting advocacy for access to clean water
Issues USA: Southeast
Dominion v. SELC

By Brigitte Keen

 Water health in the state ofVirginia has allegedly been threatened by one of its top energy providers, Dominion Virginia Power. In a new suit, filed in March 2015, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), on behalf of the Sierra Club, has accused Dominion of polluting some ofVirginia’s ground and surface waters.

In the process of making energy, coal is burned, causing ash to be carried into the atmosphere. For “disposal” purposes, the ash collects and coagulates in ponds, which if left uncontrolled, can then leach into the groundwater. Upon the heels of a devastating coal ash spill inNorth Carolina’s Dan River in early 2014, Dominion released information to the state on their coal ash ponds. In this report to the state, Dominion shared that two of their five coal ash ponds are in use, while three have sat unused and unattended for 50 years. Additionally, three of Dominion’s five existing coal ash ponds are said to be “unlined,” meaning that they provide no barrier of protection between the ground and the heavy metals imbedded in the ash. Allegedly, these heavy metals have included, arsenic, cadmium, and lead, and have been found with a toxicity of 127 times the state standard. The information provided by Dominion, was previously undisclosed, till environmentalists acquired the public record in April 2014.

Despite the claims against them, Dominion disputes the allegations, stating that they hold “no merit” and that they have upheld standards set by the EPA. The SELC is seeking that Dominion take responsibility for the pollution by cleaning the 900,000 cubic yards that have been contaminated by fly ash. This area includes the Chesapeake Bay,ElizabethRiver,Potomac River, and Quantico Creek. Furthermore, Senior SELC Attorney, Frank Holleman provided his thoughts on the matter; “There’s no question that Dominion has the capability to clean these up. They have tremendous resources and engineering capabilities.”

Holleman’s claim has been supported in part by recent events in the Senate. Recently, Bill 1349 was passed by the Senate, and currently awaits approval from the House. If passed, the bill will permit that the State Corporation Commission cannot review Dominion profits for five years time. Environmentalist’s complaints regarding this bill were met with a compromise that allocates funding toward a new solar energy facility. Despite the SELC finding peace with the environmentally minded plan,Virginia’s Sierra Club chapterlacks support for the bill.


Valley of Drums

By Jason Zheng

10 miles south of Louisville, Kentucky lies an active 23-acre toxic waste site located in BullittCounty in Brooks, Kentucky. This site has been active and discover in 1967, however after the death of the owner in 1977 the site became a graveyard for empty barrel drums. Known as the “Valley of Drums”, the initial drum inventory investigation in 1979 showed 17,051 drums on the surface and those 11,628 were empty. 

The effort to control the dump site were hampered by environmental regulations because the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was not found in the 1970. The Provisions from the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, however the law was not passed until five years after the site had be discovered.

During the investigation, the EPA found ten industrial pollutants, heavy metals (barium, zinc, copper, strontium, magnesium and chromium), and PCBs were detected in low concentration. But what was shocking was the discovery for 140 hazardous substances. Chemicals that were the highest concentration were--Xylene, Methyl Ethyl Ketone, Methylene Chloride, Acetone, Phthalates, Anthracene, Toluene, Fluoranthene, Alkyl Benzene, Vinyl Chloride, Dichloroethylene, and Aliphatic Acids.

The effect of the Valley of Drums on human is relatively minimum because even though the site is located near WilsonCreek, a small stream that is classified for recreational use. The locals have been using cisterns and public water supplies.

The importance in this case study is that played a crucial role on the creation of additional federal regulations to control toxic waste in the United States. The Valley of Drum and LoveCanal aided the establishment of the Comprehensive Environmental Response and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980. CERCLA sites were first listed in 1983, however the Valley of Drums was not considered until 1989. 

City of Alexandria Invasive Species Planting

By Jason Zheng

An electronic interview was conducted with Marion Jordan, the President of Arlington Regional Master Naturalist, primarily focusing on erosion control in the City of Alexandria, Virginia to minimize pollutants on water quality. Ms. Jordan was a previous contact on a group policy, however I was able to further extend my communications with her. Though Ms. Jordan provided in depth answers on planting native vs. invasives species to counter erosion, a few of the primary questions are included below. Permission was granted by Ms. Jordan to use this interview for academic uses only.

Jason: How long will these native plants last versus invasives species? 

Ms. Jordan: Every species of plant has a natural life span.  For example grasses usually live for one season while perennials and shrubs live for many years and some trees can live for hundreds of years.  Invasive species are not different in that respect.  I am not sure where you are trying to go with this question, but it seems that it might be directed toward finding out if natives or invasives are "longer lasting".  If you are considering the best treatment for a construction site, the real question is which plants are best suited for the site, and can provide optimal habitat for wildlife as well as preservation of native plant species, while serving practical needs such as erosion control and good visibility for drivers.  If native plants are properly selected for the site they will establish themselves and can thrive for many years with low maintenance.   Even though grasses live for only a season, they put out many seeds that grow the next year so once a grassy area has been established it will last indefinitely.

Jason: What are the cost of maintenance for these native plants versus invasives?

Ms. Jordan: This is too broad a question to answer without talking about specific plants and their impact both at the site under consideration and the surrounding areas. I will use the example for a meadow, as that is usually best suited for dry sunny areas such as areas adjacent to highways. If a meadow is properly established it will need minimal care. That care would include cutting down the vegetation in the early spring to prevent tree seedlings from becoming established.  It would also include checking in the early years to make sure that invasives do not creep in.  You may question why we would want stop tree succession which is a natural process.  There are several reasons.  One major one is that in Northern Virginia, open meadow habitat is very scarce.  In a fully natural system, open areas were created frequently by lightning strikes and resulting fires.  Then over many years, the open area would fill in and return to forest.  Meanwhile other open areas were created and went through that succession process, so that at any given point in time there were many small meadow areas available for wildlife that need that type of habitat.  Another reason is that some areas are dedicated to uses that conflict with large trees, such as power lines. I helped establish a small meadow in an Arlington County park last year under a power line for just that reason.

The whole question of what to plant where is very involved and requires really specialized expertise.  It is not just a question of natives vs. invasives, but of what community of native plants will be best suited for a particular site. The email that I will forward will illustrate some of these considerations.

The cost of having invasives along highways is usually not considered in the cost-benefit analysis, but it is significant.  Invasives travel along corridors of disturbed land, such as highway construction sites.  As the invasives spread, their impact on natural areas throughout the region, as well as people's individual yards is great.

Another maintenance factor is cost of mowing.  If turf grass is used along highways, that must be mowed. That cost should be included in any cost-benefit consideration.

Jason: Since erosion fluctuates over time, how adaptable are these native plants versus invasive species?

Ms. Jordan: Erosion changes when something is done to the landscape, such as construction.  The natural areas in Northern Virginia feature many very steep slopes.  Where those slope still have trees and shrubs with leaf litter protecting the ground you will not see erosion (except for streambed undercutting, which is another issue). On the other hand, invasive plants promoted as helping prevent erosion, such as English ivy, do not do so.  I have seen a ravine open under a thick mat of English ivy.  The best plants for erosion prevention are native plants suited for that area.  Those plants will put down deep roots that will hold the soil.

If you have been told that erosion fluctuates over time, that is a very unusual claim, unless they are referring to man- made impacts. 

Native plants are very resilient as they evolved in this area.  Once established they can withstand drought or other adverse conditions very well.  Unfortunately, some invasives, once they become established like this area very much and can be very resilient (especially the notorious ones such as porcelain berry, English ivy, Multiflora rose, Japanese stilt grass, etc.).

Ms. Jordan also stressed that there is a significant problem with construction projects removing native plants for their own purposes, and then failing to replant—instead choosing to re-plant with non-native species, which exacerbates problems already caused by VDOT.

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