Your Government and the Valley Proteins Wastewater Grant: Stealing From the Rich and Giving to … Corporations?

By Christian Baran

Valley Proteins, a chicken rendering plant in Dorchester County, is flooding the Chesapeake Bay with the byproducts of its operations, which feature harmful nutrients like ammonia, nitrates and nitrogen. The company’s water pollution permit expired years ago, but it continues to operate and discharge waste. 

Even under the expired permit’s guidelines, Valley Proteins operates in negligence. According to the EPA’s enforcement and compliance database, the company habitually fails to report wastewater discharge information. When the information does get reported, it often indicates gross disregard of the legal limits. 

The state, the company and various environmental organizations all recognize that this stripe of behavior can’t last.  The good news: change is finally here, in a planned wholesale upgrade of Valley Proteins’ water treatment facilities. The bad news: we’re (read: the taxpayers are) paying for it. 

For most of this year, Valley Proteins was slated to receive over $13 million dollars to bolster its wastewater treatment capacities. The funds come from the Bay Restoration Fund, a state-owned pot of money dedicated to upgrading Maryland’s wastewater treatment plants. Individual and industrial users of wastewater treatment plants contribute to the fund via a yearly tax, which amounts to over $100 million annually. Although publicly owned treatment plants have priority access to the money, Maryland legislators are technically permitted to consider private facilities on a case-by-case basis. Valley Proteins would be the first such case in the fund’s 17-year history.

Waste water exhaust pipe

The proposal to supply Valley Proteins with public assistance to manage its pollution was met with outrage by some lawmakers. For some, the move just didn’t sit right. One Democratic state senator said it didn’t “pass the smell test.” Others objected that private companies shouldn’t be permitted to receive money from the Bay Restoration Fund, although the action is, at the time of writing, admissible under the bill. The Maryland State Senate recently approved a budget plan that reduces the amount of the grant. It’s still too much.  

Lawmakers are right to be concerned. The decision to provide Valley Proteins with taxpayer money lands squarely in the nationwide debate over how we should proceed with a green economy, with implications beyond the fate of this particular company. It’s a local case study in the role of government in the green market, one that diverges from traditional discussion of renewable energy. 

Although limits on nutrient pollution are distinct from energy standards, both fall under the umbrella of pollution emission restrictions. The role of government in each is complicated, but arguably much simpler in the former. 

In both cases, the government is free, indeed, encouraged to, set limits on bad behavior like dumping nitrates into Chesapeake tributaries or burning coal. These pollution ceilings already exist for Valley Proteins. This grant is essentially a government subsidy to help the company meet their limits. In this sense, it’s very similar to federal subsidies for renewable energy

Those energy subsidies are meant to encourage environmentally beneficial behaviors that have significant impediments. The solar industry, for example, must overcome vast regulatory frameworks that skew towards existing energy producers like the coal and oil industries. The barriers for entry are enormous. 

Solar panels in field

This Valley Proteins grant will also, at its core, support an environmentally conscious action: mitigating nutrient pollution. However, in this case, the barriers are much smaller. In fact, the only true obstacle is cost. The renewable sector can’t control many of the prohibitive institutions that make it difficult for them to gain a foothold in the economy — cost is only one of many hurdles for them. Valley Proteins can and should control its own waste disposal and the attendant financial burden. If it can’t, it’s simply not a competitive company. 

For these reasons, it’s particularly odd to me that Democrats lawmakers seem to be more vocal in their criticism of the Valley Proteins grant than Republicans. The move does not align with the free market approach inherent in conservative beliefs. The conservative value of smaller government should, theoretically, mean opposition to what amounts to unnecessary intervention by the state. 

Regardless of political affiliation, lawmakers should oppose Maryland supplying Valley Proteins with taxpayer money to revamp its wastewater system. In this case, all the government needs to do is set pollution limits. Let private companies meet them themselves. The state should continue to support pollution reduction, but not by throwing handouts at companies violating regulations. 

A number of environmental organizations are currently planning to sue Valley Proteins for their transgressions. The point could potentially be moot if the company receives aid to upgrade its facilities. This would be a massive failure of our legal and political institutions. If the industry is in the wrong, we must hold it accountable. If you agree, write to your state senator urging them to prevent this grant.     

For A Reminder, Look to the Sea

By Christian Baran

Climate change is abstract. It can be difficult to reconcile information about changing weather patterns or large-scale biodiversity loss with your daily routine. You stagger out of bed, dump sugar in your coffee, and go to work. Your backyard isn’t being deforested. Your streets aren’t flooding. The vast majority of Americans don’t directly encounter obvious effects of climate change in their everyday lives. So, anecdotally, it can seem like our climate is just fine. This is far from the truth.

Stark examples of destruction wrought by climate change exist all around us. Maryland’s sea level rise offers some particularly poignant ones. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Maryland has the second-highest number of communities vulnerable to sea level rise, behind only Louisiana. With over 3000 miles of coastline and an economy that leans on the Chesapeake Bay, any disruptions to water levels create serious ripples. Dozens of communities on the Bay have felt these ripples. Their heartbreaking stories provide clear counters to the sentiment that climate change is abstract. The first story brings us to the quaint town of Smith Island. 

Smith Island, a small smear of land rising out of the Chesapeake Bay, has captured the heart of every Marylander for good reason. The Smith Island Cake — a 9-layer yellow cake with mouthwatering chocolate icing — is Maryland’s official dessert.  The island has been inhabited for over 350 years and is embedded in Maryland’s culture and history. It’s also rapidly disappearing into the Chesapeake Bay.  

Due to the unique geology and location of the Chesapeake Bay, sea levels there are rising twice as quickly as the global average. This sea level rise, combined with the indomitable force of erosion, threatens to put most of Smith Island underwater by 2100. In 2012, the Maryland government tried to buy out homes on the island in the hopes of avoiding future problems with flooding and relocation. Almost all Smith Islanders refused, instead choosing to cling to the hope that erosion controls will save their home. Other Chesapeake islands clung to the same hope, with fateful outcomes. 

Just a century ago, Holland Island was the most populated landmass in the Chesapeake Bay. Now, it’s little more than a patchwork of marsh poking out of the swells. In 2010, the last house standing on Holland Island collapsed, setting the scene for one of the most poignant portraits of sea level rise to ever be captured (pictured to the right). In 2019, rising sea levels and erosion caused the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to close its educational facility on nearby Great Fox Island. Other landmasses, including an atoll called Tangier Island, are barreling towards similar futures. 

Tangier Island is a tiny patch of land in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, famous for being the world’s leading supplier of soft-shell crab. Its 500-odd inhabitants are primarily crabbers — most of them can trace their ancestry back to one man who arrived on the island over 250 years ago. At an elevation of only about four feet, Tangier Island is being eaten alive by a deadly combination of erosion and sea-level rise. According to one study, Tangier Island could become completely uninhabitable within just a couple of decades, marking its residents among the first climate refugees in the continental United States. The island and its people are running out of time. 

Despite the water inundating their home, most of Tangier Island, staunchly conservative, takes a dim view of climate change. Residents concede that their island is sinking, but they argue that it is due to erosion, not climate change. Scientists disagree, but findings do little to sway popular opinion on Tangier Island.

If Tangier Islanders don’t see climate change as a threat as their homes disappear under their feet due to sea level rise, it’s easy to see how those even further removed from its impacts brush it off so easily. Even Tangier Islanders, despite their conundrum, can see climate change as an abstract concept and their plight as an isolated incident. After all, erosion is a much more intuitive concept than invisible gases trapping heat in our atmosphere. But, like climate change, the cases I’ve mentioned above are not isolated, and climate change is far from abstract if you let yourself trust the science behind it. 

Rising waters and erosion have swallowed hundreds of Chesapeake islands over the last several centuries. Because sea levels are rising faster in the Chesapeake Bay than anywhere else on the East Coast, the situation there is a good indication of what we can expect to see for coastal cities in years to come, as sea levels gradually catch up. The quandaries of the Chesapeake Bay islands are providing a glimpse into the future of the rest of the Atlantic Coast. It’s not promising. 

Maryland is taking action to address climate change. Just last month, the Maryland Senate passed measures to combat climate change, including committing to more electric vehicle usage and mandating larger decreases of greenhouse gas emissions. Some officials, including Sen. Paul Pinsky, say the actions aren’t enough, specifically citing rising sea level rise and sinking islands as examples of clear and present danger. 

Pinsky is right on the money: halfhearted government action simply isn’t enough — especially when citizens either don’t believe climate change is happening or feel untroubled by its impacts. It’s impossible to address the problem with that kind of public attitude; until we have a united front against climate change, governments and communities will continue to drag their feet.

To create a united front against climate change, people need to see it breaking others’ hearts. For confirmation of the real, painful destruction climate change is bringing to our states of Maryland and Virginia, turn your neighbor’s head to the sea. They may be able to catch a glimpse of a Chesapeake island, bursting with culture and life, before it slides beneath the waves.   

Meet the Virginia Organizers!

We want to hear and see you (as safely as possible)! CCAN organizers from Virginia Beach to Fairfax will be available for socially distanced, outdoor meetings. 

Each organizer has a slightly different schedule so check out the times and locations below to find a meet-up near you (and lunch is on us on a first come, first served basis).

Elle De La Cancela — Central Virginia

Lauren Landis — Hampton Roads

Zander Pellegrino — NoVA

Breaking Boundaries and Re-imagining them: Deb Halaand and the Turning Point for Equitable Land Use.

By. Emily Muniz

For too long, the secretary of the interior has been an agent of unjust extraction. The appointment of Deb Haaland offers a promising start to re-writing this historic narrative. The way the government uses federal land is about to change. With Haaland’s recent appointment to Interior Secretary , the treatment of indigenous people is about to change. She will also serve as the chair of Native American Affairs, a position created under the Obama administration with the goal to “provide improved coordination of Federal programs and the use of resources available to Tribal communities”. As a key liaison, Haaland will lead inter-agency collaboration to ensure equitable policies regarding Indian affairs. Trump’s crippling administrative orders promoting fossil fuels are about to change. Deb Haaland is bringing change. And it’s about time. 

(Source: worldoil.com)

Under the Trump administration (and for long before then), public land has been seen as a resource to be exploited. While the debate over the ethical use of natural resources may never conclude, it is without argument that the fossil fuel extraction that occurs on public lands is THE lead contributor to natural gas emissions that promote climate change. As climate change worsens due to increased emissions from extraction industries, health in frontline communities everywhere worsens. Change, which is well within the reach of the Interior Secretary, is needed or else federal land will continue to be used to poison the American people and the planet. 

The Secretary of the Interior heads the Department of the Interior and is responsible for the management of federal lands and waters- whether that be National Parks, coastal waters, etc. While historically focused on areas in the western United States, this position represents the nationwide devotion to stewardship through science. One of the most important components of the job description that has been heinously ignored until recently, is the secretary’s duty to managing Native American relations. 

After her 53 predecessors, Deb Haaland is the first Native American to serve as secretary of the interior. Her role in the federal government grants her responsibility to look after federal land and natural resources. She has already been active in indigenous affairs, serving as both the chair of Democratic Party of NM Native caucus and the vote director for Native Americans in Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. 

Haaland promises to be fierce for all of us, which she has already shown in her recent visit to Bears Ears National Monument, where she plans to address historic environmental injustices by giving Biden all necessary information to “get this right” in regard to restoring protections of the sacred indigenous land that were stripped under Trump. 

So, with her indigenous background, experience, and the immense power her title carries, Haaland is in the perfect position to carry out Biden’s campaign promise to ban new permits for gas and oil production on public lands. 

The current tale of a country priding itself on its “energy dominance”, does not tell of the immense harm fossil fuels bring to communities everywhere; from the devastating wildfires in California, to the rising sea levels displacing Virginia coastal communities, the effect of fossil fuels cannot be escaped and burdens everyone, everywhere. How these burdens are addressed varies drastically dependent on where the land is. Policies in the eastern US, for example are not governed the same as the western BLM lands, leaving land management on the eastern side of the country more vulnerable in some ways. Time and time again, CCAN has held local policymakers accountable by urging them to promote legislation, pass bills, protect land from pipelines and utilities, and back overall efforts promoting the fight against climate change. 

Deb Haaland just took another huge step with her directive to revoke orders issued under the Trump administration that promoted fossil fuel use and development on federal land and waters. With this, she issued an additional directive to federal agencies that will put climate change at the forefront of agency decisions. This means finally putting the well-being of the planet and people most susceptible to the effects of climate change first. This is part of a larger effort to restore natural carbon sinks, meaning that these orders rebuke the notion that drilling is permissible on public lands. Fossil fuel development will likely face a steep decrease in the coming month/ years due to these actions, which will strengthen community resistance to climate change and pave the way for clean energy to replace fossil fuels. 

Haaland’s deliberate shift away from fossil fuel promotion at the federal level is huge, and can propel our fight at the local level to keep natural gases out of frontline communities. We can utilize the new federal initiative to ensure state governments follow Haaland’s lead in their land-use choices and fossil fuel divestment. In Maryland, there is a push for No New Fossil Fuels, which reiterates Haaland’s fight to stop drilling and prevent the revitalization of the coal industry. You can sign the petition HERE

In Virginia, we are pushing to stop offshore drilling once and for all. In 2020, CCAN helped pass the Clean Economy Act, which brought a carbon-free electric grid to VA. While we have seen some success, the fight continues to stop pipelines and toxic fracking. 

In MD, CCAN helped to ban fracking statewide. But is this enough? As we continue to fight to keep pipelines off the Eastern Shore, the need for accountability has never been stronger. 

Biden’s blocking of new permits is essential, but so is the need to fully embrace offshore wind energy resources– which bring clean energy and the promise of thousands of new jobs. We must support Haaland in her efforts to not only prevent what harms the environment, but also push for clean energy development. There are two sides of the story here- ending the reliance on natural gas means opening our economy up to embracing the transition to clean energy. For this transition to become a reality, the structure of public land management must change and Deb Haaland is key to ensuring an equitable transition to a clean energy economy.

Changing federal policies regarding land use sets the precedent that the following administrations must adhere to. It’s too late; we need people like Deb Haaland and we need to act now, and we need you to act today to support our Clean Energy Standard (CES) campaign by signing this petition and reaching out to your senators. The clean energy transition has begun, and now we must begin the work of ensuring that it is equitable, rapid, and comprehensive. Only through the responsible management of our lands and waters can we come close to achieving the change we need.