Front Porch Blog

Modeling: Pretty is as Pretty Does

The following is a blog post by Betsy Shepard of Surry County, Virginia. The largest coal plant ever proposed for the state is proposed within the small town of Dendron, in Surry County and upwind of nearly 2 million people in Hampton Roads, a region already suffering from poor air quality. Somehow Betsy finds time in between raising her kids, running a business with her husband and living life to fight this proposed coal plant and to write awesome blog posts like this one.


Coal Model

Recently the issue of “modeling” has come up as it pertains to the proposed Surry Coal Plant.

No, this is not another ad campaign by the “Clean Coal” folks showing scantily clad models pretending to be coal miners—or coal plant operators in this case.

This kind of modeling has to do with making accurate predictions about air pollution from a proposed source —a key component in understanding the impacts of the largest coal-fired power plant proposed for Virginia. And an essential consideration for the 1.8 million Hampton Roads residents who live directly downwind.

According to the EPA, modeling refers:

“. . . to a general technique that uses mathematical representations of the factors affecting pollutant dispersion. Computers are used extensively to help scientists model the complex systems responsible for transport and dispersion of air pollutants.

In modeling air pollution transport and dispersion, specific information is gathered for an emission point. This information includes the location of the emission point (latitude and longitude), the quantity and type of pollutants emitted, stack gas conditions, the height of the stack, and many meteorological factors that include wind speed, ambient temperature profiles, and atmospheric pressure. Using this data as input for a computer model, scientists can predict how pollutants will be dispersed into the atmosphere. Concentration levels can be estimated for various distances and directions from the site of the stack.” Source: EPA

Modeling the pollution from the coal-fired power plant proposed by the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) will provide vital information for these downwind communities as they seek to understand the impacts they could expect from such a proposal.

Recently the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) released a report predicting rather dire consequences for downwind communities, citing “illnesses, premature deaths, and health-related costs” should the coal plant project come to fruition.

Responding to the Foundation’s report, ODEC’s David Hudgins, director of member and external relations had this to say:

“The report is inaccurate and misleading, and grossly misrepresents the potential environmental and public health . . .”

The Williamsburg Yorktown Daily went on to report:

When asked specifically what was “unreliable” or “unrealistic” about the CBF report, Vice President of Communications for the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives Bill Sherrod told WY Daily that the projected numbers used in the report, “come from a model they ran, and we don’t know about that model – how it was created or where it comes from.” (WY Daily, May 25, 2011)

It is fair enough to question the specifics of the modeling Chesapeake Bay Foundation did, but to dismiss it out of hand? That seems a little radical. How does ODEC know it “grossly misrepresents” the projected impacts when they admit they don’t even know what those projections do or do not include?

Perhaps ODEC is comparing CBF’s modeling to other modeling that’s been done and the results are wildly different. That, in fact, is exactly what Hudgins claims:

“ODEC has performed models in accordance with approved state Department of Environmental Quality and federal Environmental Protection Agency protocol to assess the potential environmental and public health impacts of Cypress Creek. The measured impacts are considered by the EPA and DEQ rules as insignificant to the environment and public health.” (Smithfield Times, May 25, 2011)

So ODEC has done the modeling and the impacts were found to be “insignificant” by the EPA and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Sounds great, right? Not so fast.

According to Robert Burnley, former Virginia DEQ Director, ODEC’s modeling could not have been signed off on by the DEQ or the EPA. Why is that? Because ODEC never even finalized their application to the DEQ.

Here’s what Bob Burnley has to say on the matter, including some information on modeling vs. measuring:

ODEC has apparently conducted some in-house modeling which may or may not have been conducted according to the protocols developed based on the data from the original air permit applications for the Surry County site. Modeling based on these applications is problematic because DEQ found six pages of “deficiencies” in them. Rather than address those deficiencies, ODEC withdrew the applications.

Since the modeling has not been reviewed or approved by EPA, DEQ or anyone else, the conclusions that ODEC is claiming cannot be confirmed. The ODEC spokesperson also confuses modeling and measuring. He infers that impacts have been measured and there are no problems. It is impossible, of course, to measure the impacts of emissions that don’t yet exist. I have no confidence whatsoever in any of these conflicting statements. As one with some experience in this arena, I would urge you not to have any confidence either.

ODEC’s response?

“Hudgins [speaking to the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors] said it was ‘speculation’ to assume the level of health effects suggested by Burnley, since computer air models have not yet been completed.” (Smithfield Times, July 13, 2011)

Come again?

“. . .computer air models have not yet been completed.”

But…what about this earlier statement from Hudgins?:

“ODEC has performed models. . . The measured impacts are considered by the EPA and DEQ rules as insignificant to the environment and public health.”

How very curious.

So has ODEC done modeling or not?

If ODEC did, in fact, conduct this modeling, what were their numbers for “illnesses, premature deaths, and health-related costs?”

What say we compare ODEC’s numbers to CBF’s.

What say we let downwind communities decide for themselves how many asthma attacks, lost work-days, hospital visits, and deaths they deem as “insignificant.”

If ODEC has not done the modeling, then it’s their charges against the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Bob Burnley that ought to be deemed, “insignificant.”

Either way, ODEC’s problem with credibility continues to grow. Their past record in this arena is significant:

“The only thing that comes out of the top of the coal plant is water vapor,”
– Jeb Hockman, ODEC. Smithfield Times May 13, 2009

That’s a pretty big, grossly misrepresenting statement. It definitely conflicts with the pages and pages of hazardous and toxic materials that ODEC estimated would, “come out of the top of the coal plant,” in their application to DEQ.

Of course, Hockman would later tell the Smithfield Times that he “misspoke.”

The Smithfield Times said they took his statement “out of context.”

While an attorney for ODEC explained the gaff to the Surry Board of Supervisors as the reporter “misquoting Mr. Hockman.”

Once again, hard to know what the truth is.

Of course, none of that stopped ODEC from photocopying that ridiculous water vapor statement, and the accompanying article (where the reporter claimed that officials from the DEQ and Virginia Department of Health actually supported such an assertion) and passing it out to citizens and members of the Dendron Town Council who would soon be voting to approve or deny the plant.

Somehow ODEC never followed up to tell these good folks that they had misspoken. Or was it: Taken out of context? Or misquoted?

Eh….too many pesky details and disclaimers to get bogged down with, I suppose.

Given this history, how sickly ironic to read an ODEC Op-Ed piece in last week’s Smithfield Times casting stones from their giant glass headquarters in Glen Allen, VA:

In recent days, some have attempted to deceive the public and confuse policymakers by presenting fictitious and erroneous predictions about the impact of Cypress Creek on the environment. (Smithfield Times, July 20, 2011)

It’d be funny if it weren’t so serious.


It’d be funny if we hadn’t heard local proponents of the plant repeat the “water vapor” comment time and time again.

It’d be funny if we weren’t all currently and thoroughly confused by ODEC’s own contradictory and fictitious statements regarding the modeling issue.

I suppose I could ask ODEC to clear up this confusion via their “Contact Us” email address (, but it seems that local residents don’t tend to get a response.


Left to draw my own conclusions, I suppose my opinion of this self-described “good corporate neighbor,” isn’t so flattering.

When answers are forthcoming (and most often they are not) they are filled with rhetoric, blatant falsehoods, and/or contradictions of earlier statements.

None of that is my idea of a trust-worthy or welcome neighbor.

A wise friend once told me, “Listen to people; they will tell you who they are.”

When ODEC’s Jeb Hockman told The Virginian-Pilot last year:

“I wish we were as smart and sinister as people think we are,”
The Virginian-Pilot January 31, 2010

I found it baffling and slightly humorous.

Why would they wish to be, “sinister?” I chuckled.

But I suppose we should listen. It seems they are telling us who they are—or at a minimum who they want to be.

I wish them luck on the smart part.

And I reluctantly congratulate them for being well on their way with the other.


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