Seventeen college students protesting for clean water were arrested in Richmond, Virginia on Monday, as a battle against the local utility’s waste disposal practices has moved to the state’s regulatory agency.
The students, part of a group from the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition (VSEC), are demanding that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) revokes permits allowing Dominion Resources to dump coal ash wastewater into local rivers. Coal ash contains toxins, including heavy metals such as arsenic.
“These incidents of environmental injustice are not isolated,” Jong Chin, a senior at James Madison University, said in a statement. “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.”
Students from The University of Virginia, The University of Mary Washington, The College of William & Mary, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Commonwealth University participated in the occupation Monday, while others rallied outside.
DEQ issued permits in January allowing Dominion to drain coal ash waste into Quantico Creek and the James River in southeastern Virginia, after Dominion was directed by the EPA to empty and close its coal ash ponds at two power plants. The ponds have been lying idle for years, potentially leeching toxins directly into the groundwater.
Indeed, there is little reason to trust Dominion’s safeguarding of the local water system. Last May, Dominion dumped 33.7 million gallons of untreated wastewater into Quantico Creek — and DEQ had no idea until last month, even though the Southern Environmental Law Center warned regulators that a coal ash pond may have been illegally drained.
The students are asking that the DEQ repeals the permits issued to Dominion to begin dumping coal ash wastewater and only reissue the permits after an investigation into the 2015 dumping. They also want the permits rewritten to in compliance with the best available technology standards, in accordance with the Clean Water Act, and with a mechanism for independent third party monitoring.
In a statement to local news outlets, the company said it is acting legally.
“Dominion has taken a lead role to close its ash ponds in full compliance with federal and state regulations,” the company said. “As part of the closure, water will be filtered, treated, monitored and discharged into nearby waterways in a manner that will fully protect aquatic life, human health and recreational activities such as swimming and fishing.”
It is unclear if the wastewater illegally dumped last year was treated at all. But some question whether the permits themselves — and the level of treatment — are legal, either. DEQ’s permits for draining the coal ash ponds near Quantico Creek and the James River 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 slightly higher, at 530 milligrams per liter. The higher levels are because the wastewater will be diluted.
But Brad McLane, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told ThinkProgress in January that Virginia is misapplying the Clean Water Act. “Dilution is not the solution to pollution,” McLane said.
Drew Shannon, a freshman at Mary and Washington College in Fredericksburg, said Dominion is trying to redirect the conversation.
“There is a push from Dominion to frame it as we don’t understand the laws, which, frankly, is pretty insulting,” Shannon told ThinkProgress. “They know as well as we do that the arsenic levels are far over the standards.”