Virginia General Assembly tackles issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed
Legislators consider pollution reduction strategies, oyster poaching, land preservation, climate change, and the shortfall in necessary funding
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The Virginia General Assembly has been working its way through more than 2600 bills introduced for consideration during this year’s six-week session, and conservationists are particularly watching legislation that would affect oyster stocks, agricultural activities, stormwater management, and clean energy, as well as pesticides, biosolids, and plastic pollution.
Agricultural and urban non-point source pollution
Ann Jennings, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the Commonwealth “is not on pace to achieve its restoration goals for the Bay,” in the nutrient and sediment reductions from agriculture and urban sectors called for by the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.
“The Governor’s proposed budget did not provide adequate funding for agricultural BMPS” said Ann Jennings, CBF Virginia director, and would “set us back.”
The Virginia Farm Bureau and the Virginia Agribusiness Council joined with CBF and others in calling for funding levels to match or exceed last year’s $27 million. The proposed budget allocates only $16 million – and the Department of Conservation and Recreation has assessed the coming year’s need at $68 million.
Jack Frye, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which has been focusing on accelerating efforts to exclude livestock from streams, noted that the demand from farmers for cost-share for this BMP alone has far exceeded available funding in the last couple of years . Adequate funding for agricultural cost-share, said Frye, will help ensure that that Virginia doesn’t fall further behind on its commitments.
In the urban sector, conservationists are keeping a wary eye towards any legislation that would water down stormwater regulations that went into effect on July 1, after a decade-long effort to increase pollution reduction requirements on construction and other activities. “We’d like to see this new program mature before we make any changes,” Jennings said.
One proposed bill would have exempted houses of worship – many of which have large impervious parking areas – from paying locally implemented stormwater utility fees. However, lawmakers are reluctant to legislate while a lawsuit ensues between Isle of Wight County and a church seeking an exemption.
Other legislation would exempt agricultural structures with footprint of less than 2,500 square feet from new stormwater management requirements and provide a regulatory definition of “impervious cover” that excludes unpaved farm roads that are closed to public travel.
Legislators will consider a budget amendment that would fund staff for the currently un-funded Shoreline Erosion Assistance program. Another bill would establish a “community wastewater fund” to provide easier access to funding for sanitary system upgrades for communities with clusters of houses that have a high percentage of failing septic systems.
Legislators are also considering a bill to increase the penalties for oyster poaching, giving the Virginia Marine Resource Commission legal leverage against those who have been taking advantage of a system which is easy to subvert. Poachers currently may loose their fishing license for up to 2 years. But some who do continue to fish without the license – sometimes only to be apprehended again. The bill under consideration would increase the length of time offenders would be prohibited from commercial fishing in tidal waters, as well as levy a fine up to $10,000.
Frye says the legislation is critical. “If we’re not careful,” said Frye, “we’re going to loose federal funding for oyster restoration.” The US Army Corps of Engineers has put Virginia on notice to tighten its enforcement of regulations that protect federal investments in oyster bed restoration.
Several introduced bills would affect how Virginia addresses its contributions to the greenhouse gasses that are contributing to climate change. One bill would have Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Coalition, which implements an EPA-sanctioned cap and trade program between nine states in the mid-Atlantic region.
On the flip side, another bill would allow Virginia to legally challenge EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which would by 2030 decrease the carbon emissions from electric generation plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels. The plan is set to go into effect July 1, 2015, and opponents say it would result in emission reduction goals that are unfair to Virginia.
Other legislation would promote renewable energy through a renewable energy certification program and tax credits for placing renewable energy property in service and for creating jobs in “clean fuel” technologies.
While legislators wrangle over energy, other bills would help those dealing with rising sea levels. One bill would require regular updates to the Commonwealth’s flood protection plan – a recommendation of the Recurrent Coastal Flooding Subpanel. The idea is to provide data and information to flood prone communities in Virginia’s tidewater areas. Another bill would require the Virginia Department of Transportation to study the problem of recurrent flooding in roadside ditches, and yet another bill would establish a low-interest loan program to help residents and businesses that are subject to recurrent flooding.
Chemical, toxic, and plastic pollution
Bills to help control the rise of plastic pollution in Virginia, Chesapeake, and coastal waters have also been introduced. One bill would enable local governments to prohibit retailers from distributing plastic bags; another would impose a tax on plastic bags – the fifth largest source of marine debris collected in Virginia– and arguably one of the most dangerous to marine mammals and sea turtles. [
Legislation has also been introduced to prohibit the manufacture of certain personal care products containing microbeads by 2018 and to prohibit their sale by 2019. Manufacturing of over-the counter drugs that contain microbeads would be prohibited in 2019 and their sale prohibited in 2020. Microbeads have been found throughout the world’s waterways – including the Chesapeake Bay – as well as in the tissue of fish.
Another bill would require homeowner to notify their adjacent neighbors of intentions to use pesticides.
The rising tide of toxic chemicals finding their way into waterways would be addressed by legislation to better inventory and track the use of toxic chemicals and chemical dumpsites. The legislation would also create an advisory committee to recommend how state agencies can protect water resources from toxic substances, a recommendation of the James River Association and others following the oil spill into the James River last spring.
Land Use, Property Rights, and Conservation Easements
While Dominion continues to survey a route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would traverse privately held property, legislation has been introduced that would repeal Virginia code that currently allows natural gas companies to enter and survey private property before submitting an application for a project. Residents along the proposed pipeline route, including many in Nelson County, have blocked Dominion surveyors from their land – and Dominion has taken them to court to gain access.
Virginia legislators will consider legislation that would affect conservation easements, including a bill that would substantially reduce the land preservation tax credit a landowner could receive for conferring a conservation easement has been proposed. In a year where Virginia’s $2 billion budget shortfall must be resolved, even Virginia’s much heralded land preservation incentives program is on the chopping block.
The General Assembly concludes its regular session on February 28.
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