By FRANCES LAMBERTS
Fletcher Dyer had said that he wished to show through art “a glimpse of how I feel about serious issues.” The Reece Museum’s annual, juried exhibit that bears his name seeks to honor that wish.
Among a number of works dealing with environmental concerns, in the recent 5th exhibit, a “Specimen 6” painting by Virginia artist Marissa Angel portrayed river water viewed under a microscope, layered photographs of the images giving the artist’s vision of river life at some point in time.
The painting shows a young frog, seemingly bent over, amid a suffocating mass of variously colored scum bubbles. One of six frog species native to a Virginia section of the Dan River, it was photographed after millions of gallons of coal ash pond sludge had leaked from a Duke Energy electric power station, in 2014, turning the river gray.
Over many years before the Dan River leakages, a growing body of studies and news reports had shown harm to water inhabitants and threats to human users from chemical contaminants in coal plant waste water. Malformed and dead fish had been found, deformed frogs with missing teeth and other disturbances, and wells and groundwater contamination near many power-plant containment ponds.
The Knoxville News Sentinel last year reported on human health consequences from exposure to the poisons in coal ash. It referenced the Tennessee Valley Authority’s ash containment failure at the Kingston plant after heavy rains in December 2008 spilled a billion gallons of coal ash into the Emory and Clinch rivers. Now, of the laborers then hired by TVA to clean up the mess, the Sentinel stated, “at least 17 are dead and dozens more are dying.”
Since the Bush administration at least, the Environmental Protection Agency had been concerned about the dangers to water health from the toxic metals and chemicals in coal ash, since arsenic, lead, mercury and other elements in the waste from coal burning are linked to increased risk of organ damage, cancer, and lowered IQ in children. In 2005, EPA scientists began data collection, measurement and analysis of effluent and groundwater releases, the contaminants’ route from water bodies to treatment plants, health consequences from them and alternative technologies that could reduce their presence in public water.
In 2009 under the Obama administration, EPA began the process of developing federal regulations to limit this pollution from power plants. Six years later, following numerous hearings, public and industry input, and rule reviews and revisions, two rules were published in the Federal Register. One, for Coal Combustion Residuals, would make sure that the ash ponds and ash-receiving landfills are structurally sound. The other, Effluent Limitations Guidelines, to be implemented November 1, 2018 through December 31, 2023, would place stricter limits on the most dangerous pollutants.
The Trump administration is rolling back these protections. In July and August last year, Administrator Scott Pruitt announced implementation delays and “reconsideration” of various regulatory aspects,for both.
In Fletcher Dyer’s words, they are serious issues indeed when the government denies or rolls back public-health and environmental protections affecting our water.