Students protesting coal ash dumping in Virginia rivers arrested

A group of students protesting a Richmond, Virginia utility dumping coal ash into local rivers were arrested last week during a sit-in at the regulatory agency’s office, as the battle over state regulation of the dumping practices heats up.

The seventeen college students who were arrested are part of a group called the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition. The group’s demands include calls for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to revoke the permits that currently allow Dominion Resources to dump coal ash wastewater into local rivers.

Heavy metals such as arsenic are known to be found in coal ash, along with other toxins, including boron, lead and mercury. Often, mining companies will build “ponds” to contain this toxic brew, or dump it in abandoned mines. But even these practices have been shown to carry dangers of the poisons contained in the ash to leech into soil and water supplies; it is insane to imagine it could conceivably be safe to dump it directly into rivers.

The students invoked the tragedy unfolding in Flint, Michigan in their ongoing fight with Dominion and the DEQ, which issued the questionable permits for Dominion to drain coal ash waste directly into Quantico Creek and the James River in southeastern Virginia.

“These incidents of environmental injustice are not isolated,” said Jong Chin, a senior at James Madison University. “In Flint, Michigan, we’ve recently seen what devastating effects that water containing concentrations of heavy metals can have on communities. This national pattern of water safety violations is indicative of widespread systemic issues.”

And indeed, these incidents are not isolated for Dominion Resources. Last May Dominion was caught illegally releasing 33.7 million gallons of untreated wastewater directly into Quantico Creek. One also worries about the oversight abilities of Virginia’s regulators; the DEQ had no idea the dumping was happening until the Southern Environmental Law Center tipped them off that a coal ash pond may have been illegally drained.

The students are demanding that DEQ revoke all the permits it issued to Dominion to begin dumping wastewater, and only consider re-issuing them after a full investigation has been conducted on the previous alleged illegal dumping.

For its part, Dominion claims it has always been in full compliance with all regulations. But some are calling into question the very legality of those regulations and of the permits DEQ has issued for draining the coal ash ponds near Quantico Creek and the James River, which set arsenic levels higher than 150 milligrams per liter, the EPA’s arsenic limit to protect aquatic life. For Quantico Creek, Dominion is allowed about 220 milligrams per liter. In the James River case, the arsenic limit is much higher, at 530 milligrams per liter.

Here’s hoping more students and other protesters like this will continue to be willing to put their lives and bodies on the line to force the government to perform its duty to protect us from the ravages of corporate polluters. And if captive government regulators won’t do their jobs, then we must take the fight to them, as these students have done.


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