“I don’t know a lot about the existing permit.”
Those words shocked the crowd gathered last night for Maryland Department of the Environment’s “informational meeting” regarding Dominion’s permit to dump an average of 45,000 gallons every day into the wetlands around Cove Point. Spoken by Marjorie Mewbourn, MDE’s project manager overseeing this permit application, this sentence summed up a lot about the amount of information our state regulators had or were able to share.
MDE seemed nervous as it tried to give a presentation about this permit to a crowd of about 60, which overflowed the “Dominion Cove Point LNG” meeting room where it was held in the Prince Frederick library and had people sitting on tables or wherever they could find space. However, residents didn’t let MDE get very far.
People were understandably angry that Dominion wanted to dump as much as 144,000 gallons a day into a tributary of Grays Creek, the primary body of water in the neighboring Calvert Cliffs State Park, which enters the Chesapeake Bay at one of the most used beaches in Calvert County. This is one of our most visited recreational spots in the county, and it appeared that MDE was setting the stage to basically let Dominion pollute it at will. We were told the numbers of 45,000 gallons a day and 144,000 gallons maximum would not include the volume of stormwater runoff that would also be planned to enter our ecosystem from this facility. Additionally, any testing would not look for or address pollutants that would inevitably build up downstream, which could be released into the Chesapeake Bay in greater concentrations during a storm.
MDE said it was counting on Dominion to self-monitor the water quality of this discharge, even after a Cove Point resident spoke of previous tests performed by Dominion that led to the conclusions Dominion wanted, rather than stated the results that were observed. In those previous tests, Dominion was monitoring how many fish its discharge was killing. When the number of dead fish was too high, Dominion instead kept moving the monitoring location until it showed fewer fish dying. Dominion never changed what it was dumping or how its discharge was treated; it just changed the result it reported.
During its presentation last night, MDE was continuously peppered with questions it couldn’t answer. Eventually, the MDE presentation was hastily concluded to make way for Dominion’s presentation, which was promised to have more specific information.
Of course, Dominion did what it does: obfuscate and lie. Dominion spoke a lot about how its new infrastructure isn’t supposed to discharge any water, instead recycling it back into its liquefaction process. When asked why the existing gasification infrastructure couldn’t do the same, especially since the liquefaction process is expected to take a concerning 230,000 gallons a day from our local aquifer, the company had no answers. We were told a lot about Dominion’s zero discharge system, which ignored that Dominion was still asking to dump an average of 45,000 gallons every day into our waterways. Dominion didn’t repeat its “Community Relations” manager Karl Neddenien’s line that this is the same permit it’s held for 15 years, but a spokesperson named “Tom” did state that “the annual flow would be unchanged.” Both of these statements ignore that the volume of discharge Dominion expects to dump greatly exceeds anything it’s ever dumped into our wetlands in the past. In March 2015, Dominion estimates it dumped an average of 1,820 gallons into our wetlands each day. In March 2016, the number was at 12,000 gallons per day. Both of those numbers are dwarfed by the 45,000 gallons per day average, which again could reach up to 144,000 gallons in a single day. After being pressed, Tom stated the flow could be as much as 100 gallons a minute. One resident noticed that Tom kept taking cues about what was OK to state from Mike Frederick, Dominion’s head of operations for its terminal at Cove Point.
Dominion said this wastewater would enter our ecosystems as perfectly clean water. However, when asked, both Dominion and MDE representatives declined to say they would drink it. Virginia Kelly, the person leading Dominion’s presentation, said the wastewater would be treated through “aeration,” which adds bubbles to the effluent “like a pump in a fish bowl,” and by chemicals designed to adjust the pH balance. She admitted nothing would be removed before being released into the outside world. At this, a residents asked about previous findings of heavy metals in water leaving Dominion’s site at Cove Point, as well as how toxins emitted from the liquefaction process would somehow not make it into the aeration process, if the air for those bubbles would be coming from the air on site. Dominion had no answers for these questions, and MDE tried to quickly move along.
It was revealed that an unknown volume of runoff that currently spills into Cove Point marsh would be piped to the Solomons Wastewater Treatment Plant. Nobody knew what would be done to this water to remove the content of metals and other toxic materials known to exist in it before it’s put back into our drinking water. MDE suggested we search for this information on our own.
Michael Richardson, the chief of the Industrial and General Permits Division of MDE’s Wastewater Permits Program, often tried to sum up questions for the audience in a way that didn’t reflect the actual question. People typically had to ask the same question a number of times before getting any answer at all, which usually didn’t address the question or contained an incredible amount of doublespeak.
Overall, Dominion engaged in its typical amount of disdain for our community. Frederick appeared annoyed both for having to be at the meeting at all and also for having to keep his people from saying too much, while Neddenien looked agitated for having to sit through so many accusations from the community whose relations he’s supposed to manage. It was noticeable that nobody wanted to sit next to Neddenien. Literally, the last seat taken in the room was the one next to him. One example of Dominion’s disdain was especially egregious: A resident was talking emotionally about the scope of the impacts residents are being forced to face from Dominion’s terminal, as Kelly, Dominion’s lead presenter, was visibly trying to keep herself from cracking up laughing. Dominion certainly got an earful from the audience when this was pointed out.
There was a noticeable absence of Calvert County officials at the meeting. Steve Jones of the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office, and one of its prime liaisons with Dominion, was present for much of the meeting, but never identified himself and left early. No commissioners were present, nor were any county planners, administrators or others.
For MDE’s part, Richardson and Mewbourn appeared hurt by the notion that they were acting as lapdogs for Dominion. It seemed they were genuinely surprised by the anger toward Dominion and this process — and also by the vast amount of information and knowledge held by the audience, many of whom are experts in related fields or have been pouring through all levels of permitting documents related to Dominion Cove Point for the past four years. At one point, Richardson referred to the crowd as “lay people,” for which he was quickly and sharply rebuked.
Richardson promised he would do what he could to open this process up to the public, offering to come and speak at smaller meetings, and to hold another large meeting after a draft permit was created and before a public hearing. Still, he said many of the audience’s quarrels with the process needed to be taken up with legislators, and that he was just doing the job with which he’d been tasked.
One resident summed up the meeting by saying, “Basically, you’re developing a permit that would poison us on some level to help a corporation profit by shipping a product that contributes to global warming. … You want us to be a sacrifice zone.” At that, another resident shouted out, “We are a sacrifice zone.”