The Chesapeake Bay Foundation wants Virginia to conduct a public hearing before renewing a wastewater-discharge permit that allows Philip Morris USA to discharge unlimited amounts of nitrogen into the James River.
“Without such limits, the state is disregarding its regional commitments to Bay restoration,” said Roy A. Hoagland, executive director of the environmental group’s Virginia office.
Philip Morris dumps about 2.3 million gallons of treated wastewater a day into the James from its cigarette factory in Chesterfield County. The releases are approved under a permit issued five years ago by the Department of Environmental Quality and State Water Control Board. The permit, which is up for renewal, does not limit the amount of nitrogen the company can release.
At its annual rate of dumping, the company pours slightly more than 138,000 pounds of nitrogen into the James each year, the Bay Foundation said.
But Philip Morris spokeswoman Jennifer Golisch said the company already has significantly reduced pollution at the Park 500 plant, where about 400 people work. She said the plant voluntarily cut the amount of nitrogen compounds in its wastewater by 45 percent in 2001.
The company was taking no position on whether regulators should conduct a hearing before renewing the permit, Golisch told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Nitrogen is the main pollutant harming the Bay and its tributary rivers. It is flushed by rain from farm fields in the form of fertilizers and animal wastes and flushed from homes and businesses through sewage-treatment systems. The nutrient fuels algae blooms that then die and consume oxygen needed by fish, crabs and other Bay species. The blooms also cloud the water, making it difficult for ecologically important underwater grasses to grow.
Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania have been working since 1985 to control the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay. The states set goals in 2000 that would limit the annual Baywide nitrogen load to 175 million pounds a year, down from the current 275 million-pound level.
The Philip Morris permit is just the latest permit renewal that the CBF has called attention to this summer. Earlier, it sought a public hearing from the state over the reissuance of a wastewater-discharge permit for the town of Onancock on the Eastern Shore.
Permit renewals represent “the perfect opportunity to do something” to began making nitrogen cuts, CBF spokesman Chuck Epes said.
The DEQ’s Virginia Beach office has agreed to hold a hearing on the Onancock permit on Sept. 8, agency spokesman Bill Hayden said. He said the agency will review the Bay Foundation’s latest call for a public hearing to consider the Philip Morris permit.