How This Energy Company's Deep Influence Is Tainting Atlantic Coast Pipeline Approval Process
By Andy Rowell
There is a growing political scandal in Virginia regarding the ubiquitous influence of the state's largest energy company, Dominion Energy, and it's raising fundamental questions about the integrity of the governor's office and state regulators who will decide the fate of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Dominion's longstanding exercise of power and influence in Virginia is no secret—the company is the largest corporate donor to state candidates.
But a new report by the Public Accountability Initiative documents in one place the company's extensive, revolving door relationships with the very regulators charged with issuing permits for this controversial, $5 billion fracked-gas project.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a joint venture of Dominion, Duke Energy and Southern Company, but Dominion is the leading owner and will operate the pipeline if it goes ahead.
The project, which would source fracked gas from West Virginia, plans to traverse the Allegheny Highlands bordering West Virginia and Virginia, cut a large swath through Virginia to the Hampton Roads area, and branch south into North Carolina.
The new report details how Dominion's influence penetrates every level of state government, from Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) officials, through General Assembly members on both sides of the aisle, to the governor's mansion.
These relationships are fundamental to the fate of the pipeline.
While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is expected to rubber stamp the pipeline's federal permit, states retain the right under the Clean Water Act to protect their water resources—the project will cross hundreds of water bodies in the state—and deny permits for such projects if they are deemed a threat.
The Cuomo Administration in New York State has recently denied two such permits for gas pipelines. In Virginia, Governor McAuliffe's Department of Environmental Quality has the authority to do the same, but both the governor and the regulators who report to him have shown far greater interest in smoothing Dominion's path through the regulatory system.
The report sheds light on possible reasons why.
Gov. McAuliffe, who stood with Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell in 2014 as he unveiled plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, has received tens of thousands of dollars in political funding from Dominion. He received $35,000 from Dominion PAC shortly before his election in November 2013, and Dominion Virginia Power gave $50,000 to his inaugural committee shortly afterwards. More recently in 2016, Dominion PAC gave $25,000 to McAuliffe's PAC, Common Good VA, and Dominion CEO Tom Farrell gave $7,500.
The DEQ, the key agency charged with reviewing the pipeline's water quality permit, is mired in conflicting interests linked to Dominion. For example, the DEQ's longstanding director, David K. Paylor, received gifts from Dominion including a trip to the 2013 PGA Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, and a $1,200 dinner for Paylor and nine of his associates.
In 2015, Dominion's philanthropic foundation donated $45,000 to the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, an organization whose Virginia chapter is headed by Nissa Dean, who sits on the Virginia DEQ's seven-member Water Control Board, which must sign off on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline's water permit.
DEQ's Water Permitting Division Director, Melanie Davenport, appears to have previously served as an attorney for Dominion, according to the report. Davenport also sits on the board of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center with Joe Tannery, who is Dominion's energy technology advisor.
Pamela Faggert, Dominion's chief environmental officer and senior vice president of sustainability, served for nearly eight years as director of the air division of the Virginia DEQ in the late eighties and early nineties. The pipeline also has to receive regulatory approval from the air division. Furthermore, Faggert has donated over $10,000 to Virginia politicians, including supporters of the ACP.
Given the extensive revolving door between Dominion and DEQ, it is perhaps no surprise that DEQ recently came under fierce criticism over relinquishing partial oversight of water quality permits related to the pipeline to the Army Corps of Engineers' national permitting system.
As one commentator noted last month, this means that Dominion can use the "corps' blanket permit, instead of having to get one for each river, stream and wetland the pipelines cross."
Greg Buppert, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center's Virginia office, has expressed concerns: "That process does not involve site-specific analyses and we have no confidence that the corps' permit will be sufficient for such a complex project across the state's steepest mountains."
Atlantic Coast Pipeline Would Require Extensive Mountaintop Removal https://t.co/TyQjmptiei @GreenpeaceUK @globalactplan— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1493463635.0
Dominion is also used to getting its way with state legislators in Virginia. State politicians in Virginia and North Carolina "who have been publicly vocal about their support for the pipeline have been some of the biggest recipients of donations from its corporate backers," argued the report.
General Assembly leaders alone have received nearly $400,000 since 2007 from the company. Some of this money is redistributed by the leadership to less powerful elected officials, ensuring compliance with Dominion's agenda down the chain of command.
Five leading state representatives from Virginia, along with eleven elected officials from West Virginia and North Carolina who co-signed a letter to FERC declaring their support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, "rank among the highest recipients of donations from Dominion over the past decade."
Ultimately, when it comes to state authority over pipeline permits, the buck stops with the state's chief executive—currently McAuliffe—to ensure a fair and thorough review process that's free of polluter influence.
McAuliffe was recently labelled a climate hypocrite after announcing he was moving forward on the Paris agreement principles, but at the same time being a vociferous supporter of offshore drilling and fracked gas pipelines in Virginia.
As Oil Change International's own analysis has shown, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline alone would cause as much greenhouse gas pollution per year as 20 coal-fired power plants.
Chesapeake Climate Action Network director Mike Tidwell, argues: "It is, frankly, hypocrisy for the governor to support both Paris and violent drilling for oil and gas in and across the state. The best thing Gov. McAuliffe could do to support Paris and oppose Trump is to drop his tragic support for offshore oil drilling and for the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines for fracked gas."
If you look up the word "Dominion" in the dictionary you will see the word derives from the Medieval Latin word "dominium" or "dominus" which means "lord or master." And true to its name, Dominion Energy certainly seems to be master of Virginia, no matter the cost to communities and the environment.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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