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We’re All Downstream

The massive coal ash spill in North Carolina’s Dan River earlier this month is a dramatic demonstration that environmental pollution doesn’t confine itself to state borders. That’s a hard lesson that Danville and other Virginia localities are learning firsthand.

According to news reports, a pipe running under a coal ash pond collapsed at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station in North Carolina on Feb. 2 and spilled up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River. The Dan flows north out of the Tar Heel state into Virginia, where it provides drinking water for Danville and other communities down river.

The full impact of the North Carolina spill on Virginians is still not known, but already the incident has sparked great concern in localities dependent upon the Dan for water, prompted more time and money on water quality testing, launched investigations by Virginia and federal environmental officials, and engaged Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has said his office is closely following events.

Watershed.streamsWe’re all downstream from someone and must depend upon other states to do the right thing…or not. And that underscores the significance of the multi-state Chesapeake Bay cleanup, a cooperative federal-state effort that is based on the truism that to restore a regional body of water, the entire region must participate.

The regional Bay cleanup -- more than 30 years in development and involving six states, the District of Columbia, federal agencies, local governments, farmers, businesses, nonprofits, and citizens -- is working. The Bay’s health is getting better with reduced pollution, cleaner water, smaller dead zones, and more crabs and oysters.

But now 21 states from other parts of the country have signed onto a lawsuit brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation to oppose the interstate Bay cleanup. The states say they’re not against Chesapeake Bay restoration but, rather, what they contend is an EPA over-reach -- as if Virginia and the other Bay states never agreed voluntarily to the Bay cleanup; as if Virginia and the other Bay states never developed their own state cleanup plans; as if Virginia and the other Bay states have not worked with one another and with federal agencies for decades; as if such state and federal cooperation is somehow inappropriate and illegal; as if regional collaboration is not crucial to cleaning up a regional resource.

The 21 states and the farm lobby pay lip service to supporting Bay restoration, but should they succeed in this peculiar legal fight, they will effectively torpedo the Chesapeake Bay cleanup and similar regional environmental restoration efforts around the nation. It’s really that simple. It’s a bit like saying you’re all for curing cancer, just against using the most promising and effective medicine to do it. (If you agree and want to help stop the other states, click here.)

Whether it’s coal ash poisoning downstream waters or nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment choking the Chesapeake Bay, it takes all the players in the watershed working together to win the pollution reduction game. There really is no other option.

Chuck Epes

Chesapeake Bay Foundation




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