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James River Water Levels

Westham Gauge
Gauge Height: 6.49'
Flow: 10200 cfps

Trail Conditions: Richmond


Todays Tides: Richmond Locks

High Tide: 6:18am
Low Tide: 1:00am

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To Rock, or Not to Riverrock? That is the Coal Ash Question

Nicole Anderson Ellis

March 1, 2016 11:08am
What would the impact be if all of us, together, said, “No thanks.” Credit: Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

What would the impact be if all of us, together, said, “No thanks.” Credit: Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

My daughter made the suggestion. I was tired and eager to be home, but I heard myself say, “Great idea. Where on the river? The Pipeline?”

She was right, of course. We HAD to end the day at the river. I mean, she’d spent her morning seated on the floor with poster board printing out “We love our river” on one side, and on the other: “My playground,” above of a self-portrait, splashing on river rocks.

In the hours between the sketched river play and our actual visit to the James, we drove downtown, to carry those signs in the March for Our Rivers. The rally – rescheduled from a freezing-rain Monday to the most beautiful Saturday in months – was organized to protest Dominion’s plans to release hundreds of millions of gallons of coal ash wastewater upriver from Richmond, into the James.

Now I love a good rally; especially on such a day. And the families with children lent a festival air — dozens of river lovers rolling down the grass hill in front of the Capitol (This is what Democracy looks like.).

But after the impressive and inspiring speakers took their turn at the megaphone, and after the drum-charged march looped through downtown and back to the capital, I felt unsettled.

For starters, I’d lost all patience for the day’s most popular chant: “No Coal Ash. The James is Not for Trash.” That’s really not the point. We HAVE the coal ash. And no one is suggesting we dump it in the James. On the contrary, the reason Dominion is draining the wastewater is so it can obey new rules and move the coal ash to a safe place away from the river. But it’s awkward to chant, “Don’t release wastewater into the James until/unless it reaches truly safe levels and don’t try to tell me it’s safe when it’s not.”


I even fantasized, briefly, about taking a turn at the megaphone to say:

Richmond gets its drinking water from the James River. In the summer we go there to soak. When I asked a friend at the Department of Environmental Quality if the wastewater from Bremo Power Station posed any threat to my daughter’s safety, he couldn’t say no; only that the allowable limit for heavy metals in this wastewater is really, really low.

Maybe so. But here’s my concern: That little allowed bit from Bremo? What happens when it adds to the little allowable bit released at Dominion’s plant in Chesterfield? And the little allowable bits both already release into the air? And then there’s the little allowable bit from the Reynolds factory. And the DuPont factory. The planned Shandong Tralin paper mill. These also have permission to release “just a little bit” of poison in the James.

012And how about the fact that heavy metals – mercury and lead and cadmium and arsenic; these bioaccumulate. They concentrate as they move up the food chain; in oysters and muscles and fish. And once in your body, they stay in your body. So what does that mean for a ten year old? One’s who’s been splashing in the river since day one?

That’s what I imagined saying. Instead, I left the crowd to their chanting and told my daughter, Sure. I’d take her to the James.

Again, I love a good protest. Citizens walking through streets to support a shared belief is a universal gesture of freedom. It draws attention to an issue. It can inspire, and pump us up to act. But these secondary actions are what really make change. So, what to do next? What step to make clean drinking water the number one priority of our leaders and laws?

Boycotts can work, but not on monopolies. We want lights on and phones charged, so we plug in, and Dominion gets paid.

Petitions get attention. Letters to the editor educate. Calls to elected officials are counted. Actual meetings count for more. But this is Dominion Power. How can a citizen – especially one with a job and a family and all the time those require – compete with teams of lobbyists, lawyers, and political donations to the General Assembly alone?

So what’s a water drinker to do? Or not do.

If we can’t stop giving Dominion our money, what if we stop taking theirs? While Dominion lobbies to loosen pollution regulations with one hand, its other is offering Richmond gifts. Look around. They sponsor everything. What would the impact be if all of us, together, said, “No, thanks.”

The James River Association already did so. As of this month they’re not asking Dominion for program funding anymore. The conflict was just too obvious; the hypocrisy too great.

Speaking of which…consider Dominion Riverrock.

I’m proud to call some of the scheduled musicians friends, and I know that for some, this is a pretty big gig. Dropping out would be a sacrifice. But imagine the public pressure an empty festival could bring. Or don’t imagine…remember. When bands from around the world rejected offers to play the whites-only resort Sun City, the embarrassment to the South African government helped speed the end of Apartheid. And they didn’t call it a sacrifice; it was an investment in a higher cause.

Last Saturday afternoon, the Pipeline parking lot was too crowded, so Chapel Island was my daughter’s second pick. I watched her do her 10-year-old monkey-thing on a sycamore growing horizontally over the river, and started to protest. Then I stopped myself. She was wearing play clothes. The day was warm. If she fell in, she’d get wet. What’s the harm in that?

About Nicole Anderson Ellis

Nicole Anderson Ellis teaches critical thinking, critical writing and argumentation at VCU. She’s also co-chairwoman of the Route 5 Corridor Coalition, a director on the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District Board and a resident of Henrico’s Varina District.