Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation

Editor's note: Dr Thomson will be doing a book reading and signing on Saturday, March 24 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. at Interbang Books in Dallas. Find out more about the event here.

Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County VA

Dominion Resources' Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, a coal-fired power plant, under construction in 2008 in Wise County, Virginia.

Sierra Club member Vivian Thomson, a recently retired Professor of environmental sciences and politics at the University of Virginia, spent eight years on the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board. What she observed and experienced is the subject of her new book, Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation (MIT Press, 2017), a rare insider’s expose. Various Sierra Club chapters have hosted Dr. Thomson for book signings and readings.

Vivian Thomson
Dr. Vivian Thomson at the University of Virginia. Photo by Dan Addison, courtesy of the University of Virginia.

Three chapters narrate Air Board cases involving coal and air pollution: 1) a decades-old coal-fired power plant just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.; 2) a controversial new coal-fired power plant in southwest Virginia’s coal country; and, 3) health-threatening coal dust pollution from open trucks in coal-country communities. Other chapters extend the book’s analysis to 15 other coal states in the South and Midwest.

In the three Virginia cases, the Sierra Club played an important role, either on the front lines or behind the scenes. The book shows that, even while “deeply rooted favoritism” toward coal and electric utilities is interwoven into Virginia’s political fabric, citizen action and strong policy leadership can help counteract the state’s climate of capitulation.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the states have authority to decide on air pollution standards for stationary sources like power plants. In 2006 the Virginia Air Board, which is comprised of expert citizens, decided to oversee the permitting process for the Mirant (later GenOn) coal plant in Alexandria, Va.  But the Board encountered unexpected resistance. In her book, Thomson details the ways in which “the management of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Governor Tim Kaine’s administration, and members of the Virginia General Assembly set out to undercut us.”

City of Alexandria officials and local activists helped reveal the extent of health hazards posed by the 63-year-old plant’s emissions. The Air Board imposed standards that met Clean Air Act requirements and that were far more stringent than those proposed by DEQ. The Board’s limits held up in court. The City of Alexandria then reached a settlement agreement with Mirant that called for $34 million worth of air pollution controls.

Michael Brune, Michael Bloomberg, and <ary Anne Hitt
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune speaks as then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign director Mary Anne Hitt listen, with the GenOn coal plant in the background.

Later, in 2011, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood with Sierra Club director Michael Brune and Beyond Coal program director Mary Anne Hitt, with the Alexandria plant as a backdrop, and announced Bloomberg Philanthropies’ $50 million donation to Beyond Coal to shut down the nation’s worst-polluting coal plants. In 2012 GenOn ceased coal-burning operations at the Alexandria facility, calling it a “market-driven” decision.

Michael Brune, Mary Anne Hitt, Michael Bloomberg, and Bruce Nilles
Michael Brune, Mary Anne Hitt, Michael Bloomberg, and Beyond Coal senior campaign director Bruce Nilles.

In the case of Dominion Power’s proposed coal plant in Wise County in southwestern Virginia, “the Air Board took over the permitting process reluctantly, only when it became clear that the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was inclined to let Dominion get away with lenient standards,” Thomson says. “The Board’s limits resulted in limits that were 80 percent lower for sulfur dioxide and 90 percent lower for mercury, relative to what DEQ had proposed.”

When Dominion opened the plant in 2012, Governor Robert McDonnell bragged that the plant complied with the “very highest standards available.” Thomson says, “the implication that Dominion actively pursued tight standards is revisionist history.” Local grassroots pressure and arguments made by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club informed the Air Board’s decision to impose strict Clean Air Act limits.

Dominion Resources' Wise County coal plant under construction
Dominion Resources' "Hybrid Energy Center" -- a coal-fired power plant -- under construction in 2008.

The third Virginia case Thomson details in Climate of Capitulation revolves around high levels of particulate matter in Roda, Virginia, on an access road to nine mountaintop removal mining operations. When the Sierra Club intervened on behalf of Roda residents, upward of 100 uncovered coal trucks per day were traveling the road, covering homes in the narrow valley with soot and black dust.

Coal truck passing through Roda, VA
Coal trucks passing homes in Roda, Virginia.

Sierra Club managing attorney Aaron Isherwood hired Dr. Viney Aneja, a professor of atmospheric sciences with North Carolina State University, to conduct air-quality measurements. Working with a tiny budget, Vineja brought the necessary instruments to Roda in the summer of 2008. “The machines had to be calibrated daily and we followed the EPA protocol to a T, very methodically and accurately,” he says.

Installing air-quality-monitoring equipment in Roda
Installing air-quality-monitoring equipment in a front yard in Roda. Dr. Viney Aneja is at right in pink shirt.

Aneja’s findings showed shockingly high particulate matter levels that resembled those in industrializing countries. But DEQ staff and managers dismissed the results, saying their measurements showed the air in Roda to be safe to breathe. “The results from my electron microscopy corroborated my original findings. DEQ’s assertion was wrong,” Aneja recalls.

Air quality monitor in front yard in Roda VA
An air quality monitor in a Roda front yard.

Responding to Aneja’s results, coal companies adopted voluntary measures, like washing down coal trucks, to reduce dust loads in Roda. But the Air Board and DEQ never adopted regulations codifying those voluntary actions, because DEQ’s managers objected. “DEQ referred the matter to the Department of Mines Minerals, and Energy, which has no regulatory authority for controlling ambient air pollution,” Thomson says.

Roda citizens with sign
Roda residents with homemade sign.

“DEQ’s decision was disappointing but not surprising,” says Jane Branham, former vice president of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a Wise County-based citizens' group. “The state regulatory agencies facilitate the industry first, rather than acting to protect the water or communities the way they should. That’s been the case at every DEQ hearing I’ve attended; they’re not open to any comments critical of the coal industry.”

Jane Branham
Jane Branham

“I feel like for generations the coal industry has raped, pillaged, and left behind broken communities and a broken economy,” Brannan continues.  “Our elected officials have blindly supported the industry. If you talk to people who live in the hollows near the coal-mining lands they’ll say they’re trapped. If the state regulatory agencies had done their job a long time ago, we wouldn’t be in this situation now. It’s the fault of the local, state, and federal governments.”

In other chapters in Climate of Capitulation, Thomson analyzes 15 other leading coal states, such as Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Texas. She finds varying degrees of capitulation. “The greatest susceptibility appears in the South,” this southerner says, "and this tendency transcends partisan labels.

“In much of the South, we find a political culture that is inclined to inertia and deference to businesses. In addition, many southern states have less professionalized legislatures that meet for short sessions, are poorly paid, and lack expert staff. Power flows outside, to lobbyists, because legislators lack the time and expertise to deal with the technical-legal issues that inevitably arise in the environmental arena. Finally, patterns of campaign finance underscore the dominance of players from the electric utility and coal sectors.”

“We need to be concerned about political and institutional capacity in the coal states,” Thomson warns. All eyes will be on whether Virginia’s governor-elect Ralph Northam advocates for a strong final carbon rule for the state’s electrical generating facilities. The state Air Board proposed a carbon rule in November.

Thomson’s final chapter suggests reforms in coal states that will help ensure appropriately strict emissions standards for coal-fired power plants. And what are the prospects for such reforms, given the pro-industry, anti-environmental policies of the Trump administration? “Resistance is possible,” Thomson says. “Strong leaders can and do emerge. But when fossil-fuel interests, biased institutions, and entrenched elites stymie realization of the public good, change must come.”

All photographs by Tom Valtin unless otherwise noted.

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