Water Quality Monitoring: In response to a study that was sharply critical of the state's water protection programs completed last fall by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly passed legislation to expand the Department of Environmental Quality's water-monitoring program and to make its information more available. Under the legislation, the DEQ must develop a plan and schedule to improve monitoring, examine more miles of river and test for more pollutants. The law, whose chief patron was Chesapeake Bay Commission member Senator Joseph V. Gartlan, Jr., also requires the DEQ to restore the annual publication of a toxics release inventory, develop plans to improve waters identified as "impaired," and make water quality information available to the public. Finally, owners of facilities that discharge toxics to impaired waters are required to evaluate pollution-prevention mechanisms. To support additional stream monitoring, the assembly approved an $800,000 budget increase.
Toxics: Reflecting the legislature's increased concern about water quality in general, and toxics in particular, a second bill was passed that addresses toxic discharges. The assembly directed the State Water Control Board to complete an ongoing assessment of the amounts of toxics in Virginia's waters and to develop and implement a plan to reduce toxics in state waters. The board must report to the legislature on its efforts to reduce toxics, including the number of new permits issued with toxic limits, the location and number of monitoring stations, and the results of such monitoring.
Permit notification: The General Assembly passed new notification requirements to alert property owners along rivers and streams about discharges that may affect water quality. Under the new law, property owners and local governments located on tidal waters within one-quarter mile upstream or downstream of a proposed discharge, or on nontidal waters within one-half mile upstream and downstream, must be notified of any new or modified discharge permits. Agricultural and aquacultural activities are exempt. In addition, the locality where a discharge violation occurs must be notified upon the initiation of an enforcement action by the state. Both actions are intended to improve public knowledge and participation in the water permitting and enforcement process.
VMRC: The General Assembly approved a bill that would stagger the terms of the six members of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which regulates fisheries in Virginia's portion of the Bay and the Atlantic. By not having all the terms expire at the same time, the aim of the legislation is to add more continuity to the VMRC's work. The legislation was sponsored by Commission member Delegate Robert S. Bloxom.
ASMFC: The General Assembly repealed a 1995 law that called for the state to withdraw from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a panel representing all East Coast states that is responsible for developing management plans for fish species that migrate across state boundaries. The state, which had argued that the regulatory authority granted to the ASMFC was unconstitutional, never actually withdrew from the commission, as the General Assembly had delayed the effective date for the withdrawal each year. In addition, the General Assembly appropriated $20,523 in Fiscal Year 1998 for current annual dues and for dues that are in arrears for Fiscal Years 1990 through 1996.
Fish Passage: The General Assembly allocated $250,000 in Fiscal Year 1998 for fish passage construction at Bosher's Dam in Richmond, the last major barrier to migrating fish on the James River. Since 1992, the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay Program, the City of Richmond, and the James River Association have all contributed to the construction of a passage at the dam, but the cost has greatly exceeded original estimates. The new appropriation is intended to help complete the construction of the passage, which could open more than 130 miles of river by next spring. The legislature also directed the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to study fish passage options at Embry Dam in the City of Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River.
Open Spaces: The General Assembly created the Open-Space Lands Preservation Trust Fund to encourage the use of conservation easements, especially for landowners who will not benefit from the tax benefits typically associated with such designations. Instead, the fund will allow Virginia to create other financial incentives for giving conservation easements. The fund, to be administered by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, will be used to provide grants to people for costs associated with easements, such as legal and appraisal costs, and may be used to cover all or part of the value of the easements. The General Assembly allocated $225,000 to the fund for Fiscal Year 1998.
In related legislation, the General Assembly added soil and water conservation districts to the definition of "public body" in the Open-Space Land Act. This will allow districts to hold conservation easements.
Environmental enforcement: The General Assembly clarified the authority of Virginia's air, water and waste boards to provide for supplemental environmental projects. An SEP is an environmentally beneficial project that can be negotiated as part of an enforcement proceeding. As such, the grant of authority to use SEPs signifies an opportunity to have dischargers perform beneficial projects as well as meet statutory and regulatory requirements. The legislation was introduced in the Senate by Commission member Sen. Bill Bolling and in the House by Commission member Delegate Robert S. Bloxom.
Small Business Assistance: The General Assembly created a Small Business Environmental Compliance Assistance Fund to provide low-interest loans to small businesses that need to purchase and install pollution control equipment. Often, small operations cannot afford the required equipment, so they choose to operate in violation of permits or requirements. The fund will consist of general fund appropriations and money which is transferred from another fund designated for emergency environmental response. Money cannot be transferred from the Environmental Emergency Fund unless its balance exceeds $2 million.
Most of the information in this report originated from a summary of legislative activity produced by the Chesapeake Bay Commission. The commission is a tri-state legislative advisory body, created by the General Assemblies of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to offer policy advice and legislative proposals on matters concerning the Bay. The Commission is also a signatory to the Chesapeake Bay Agreement and thus represents the legislative arm of the Chesapeake Bay Program.