With the new actions needed to clean up the Bay expected to cost billions of dollars, legislation that would increase spending on the Chesapeake and other environmental programs took center stage in the general assemblies of three Bay states this year.
A new Virginia budget that emerged after weeks of debate will result in $30 million of increased spending over the next two years. Gov. Mark Warner called it “the largest infusion of funds for natural resource programs in Virginia history.”
Half of the new money will help to fund wastewater treatment plant upgrades, and the other half will help to control nutrient runoff from farms, cities and other sources on the watershed. But the legislature stopped short of earmarking an ongoing source of money for those programs, as the governor had requested.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Ed Rendell has proposed a major $800-million, 4-year expansion of the state’s Growing Greener program which includes many Bay-related activities but the General Assembly must act by the end of June if the bond-funded measure is to be on the November ballot.
Meanwhile, state voters did approve a $250 million bond in April to pay for water and sewage plant upgrades statewide.
The biggest boost came in Maryland, where the “flush tax” approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Robert Ehrlich will assess a $2.50 per month surcharge on households for sewage discharges, and an equivalent $30-per-year fee on septic system owners.
The sewage fee will generate an estimated $738 million through 2010, which will be used to upgrade major wastewater treatment plants with sophisticated nutrient control technology.
Of the $12 million per year generated from the septic fee, 60 percent will be used to address failing septic system issues, with priority given to those in critical areas, and 40 percent will be used to pay for cover crop programs on farmland.
Other legislative highlights from Maryland and Virginia (Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is still in session) include:
Nutrient Management: Legislation addressed the farm community’s critique of nutrient management plan provisions in the Water Quality Improvement Act that were seen as unduly burdensome, as well as changed the right of entry requirement by providing a 48-hour notice of inspection with farmers present. The new action eliminated extensive nutrient management plans, calling for year-end reports summarizing fertilizer and manure use and outlining intended changes for next season. The goal is to increase farmer participation in the NMP program.
Critical areas: In response to an Appeals Court decision last year that weakened the state’s Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Protection Program, legislation reaffirmed that the applicant for a variance has the burden of proof and persuasion in seeking a decision by their local jurisdiction. The bill reiterated that the cumulative impact of development is harmful to the critical area and should be considered when assessing variances. It also increased penalties for critical area violations from a maximum of $500 to $10,000.
Renewable Energy: A new law will require any electricity supplier to include a specified amount of renewable energy as part of its portfolio of generating fuels for retail sales. Beginning in 2006, the renewable share is set at 3.5 percent and rises to 9.5 percent by 2018. Suppliers not meeting the standard will pay into a Renewable Energy Fund. Suppliers may also trade renewable energy credits to fulfill the standard. Poultry litter incineration is credited under this bill and private/public sector efforts to increase its use in power generation are encouraged. About 5 percent of electricity in Maryland now comes from renewable sources.
Energy Efficiency Standards: A bill setting energy efficiency standards for certain appliances which was vetoed by the governor last year was passed in January when the General Assembly overrode the veto.
Brownfields: The General Assembly made several changes in the Voluntary Cleanup Program, which helps to clean up contaminated industrial sites for reuse. The changes expand eligibility, modify fee provisions, increase public notification of cleanups and clarify liability provisions.
Mercury Labeling and Disposal: Beginning in April 2006, unless a mercury-added product is labeled in accordance with Maryland Department of the Environment regulations, a manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer may not sell the product in the state. Proper disposal requirements are also specified. Mercury is a persistent and toxic pollutant that bioaccumulates in the environment and can reach dangerous levels in fish.
Stormwater Management: Legislation was passed that consolidates Virginia’s stormwater management programs into one agency, the Department of Conservation and Recreation. This agency will now be responsible for all non-industrial stormwater permitting and enforcement. Previously, stormwater and erosion and sedimentation control programs were administered by three separate agencies. Additional legislation requires agency personnel who inspect for compliance with the Erosion and Sediment Control Law and stormwater management permits, to hold valid certificates of competence, as is required of local government program personnel.
Habitat Management: The Virginia Marine Resources Commission was authorized to lease the water column above certain state-owned bottomlands for aquaculture. In applying for a lease, a person has to identify the size, location and characteristics of the proposed leased area, describe the types of aquaculture structures to be deployed, and provide a five-year development plan detailing the activities to take place in the leased area. There is a $100 application fee for a lease of less than one acre and a $250 fee for a lease of between one to 10 acres. Each five-year lease may be renewed for an additional five-year period if the leased area has been productive. The bill has a delayed effective date of July 1, 2005, and is only effective if state funding is included for this specific purpose in the general appropriation act for the period July 1, 2005, through June 30, 2006.
Agriculture and Forestry: Legislation established a new position of Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry. The secretary will be responsible to the governor for the following agencies: Department of Forestry, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Virginia Agricultural Council and Virginia Marine Products Board. Until this bill, these agencies were housed within the Secretariat of Commerce and Trade. The formation of this new secretariat is dependent on funding and will become effective in January 2006 unless money for the position and expenses is included in the 2004 appropriation act passed by the General Assembly.
Environmental Permitting: Legislation was approved authorizing the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to assess a combination of permit application fees, annual fees and permit maintenance fees that will generate approximately $6 million for the funding of air, water and waste permit programs at the DEQ. In addition, the bill requires the DEQ to evaluate and implement measures to improve the long-term effectiveness and efficiency of its programs. To assist the agency in attaining these goals, a consulting firm will be hired to conduct a management efficiency study of the Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program and the air permit program. The firm will be assisted by a peer review panel. The DEQ is also charged with conducting a review of its solid waste permitting programs to ensure that these programs are operating at maximum efficiency.
Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act: The last-minute budget bill approved by the General Assembly and the governor directs that the Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Department, the agency responsible for implementing the state’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act which regulates development near the Bay, be merged with the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Nutrient Management: The General Assembly directed the Joint Legislative and Review Commission to study the effectiveness of the implementation, performance and enforcement of Virginia’s nutrient management plans. The Commission must also make recommendations concerning improvements to areas of nonpoint source pollution that comply with the nutrient management program.