Oysters will be on the legislative menu in Maryland in 2019, while Virginia lawmakers will have menhaden on their plates. But for legislators gathering in both states in January, many of the environmental issues confronting them will be leftovers from previous years.
In Annapolis, environmentalists hope to capitalize on an infusion of dozens of newly elected legislators to push through bills that have failed to gain traction in years past. In Richmond, activists face a different situation, seeking to make headway in an election year, with all of the legislative seats up for grabs.
Here are some of the environmental issues lawmakers in each state can expect to face.
Oysters: In the wake of a troubling scientific assessment of Maryland’s oyster population, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is seeking legislation to protect the five Bay tributaries selected for large-scale restoration from being reopened to harvest and to lay out a framework for the development of a new fishery management plan for the species.
A Department of Natural Resources stock assessment found in November that the number of market-size bivalves last season was half of what it had been 15 years earlier, and that the shellfish were being overfished in roughly half of the state’s waters. The assessment had been ordered by the General Assembly in 2017 after the DNR moved to open some state oyster sanctuaries to supplement a faltering commercial harvest. Lawmakers blocked the DNR move until the assessment was complete.
Maryland and Virginia have each pledged to restore oyster populations and habitat in five tributaries. In Maryland, reef restoration is complete in Harris Creek and under way in the Little Choptank and Tred Avon rivers. The DNR has preliminarily identified the St. Mary’s and Manokin rivers as its final two restoration sites. Environmentalists worry that the state may reopen them to harvest at some point and hope to codify their status as sanctuaries under the law.
The foundation is also asking legislators to spell out a timeline and process for the oyster fishery management plan that the DNR is charged with developing and expects to complete in 2019. Conservationists say they want to be sure that the public has a chance to participate, and that all management options are considered.
“We want a plan that balances truly bringing the population back with [allowing a continued] harvest,” said Alison Prost, the foundation’s Maryland executive director.
Renewable energy: After falling short last year, environmentalists plan a renewed push to raise the state’s renewable energy goals, making it a top priority of many groups. In 2016, they succeeded in setting the bar for 25 percent of statewide energy use to come from renewable sources by 2020. Now, the Clean Energy Jobs initiative wants Maryland to get 50 percent of its energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2030 and to reach 100 percent by 2040.
Foam packaging: Legislation to ban the use of polystyrene foam food containers will make a return appearance this session, after failing twice before. Activists hope the shakeup in committee leadership, as well as its new members, can make this try the charm.
“We feel the changes in the Senate and House are favorable to passing environmental legislation in coming years,” said Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. With foam bans adopted by Baltimore city and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Raettig said that “it just makes sense to have it be statewide.”
Environmental rights: After failing to make headway last year, activists expect to mount a more concerted push for a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing Marylanders the right to uncontaminated water, breathable air and a healthy environment for present and future generations. The legislation is modeled on environmental rights amendments adopted in some other states, notably Pennsylvania.
“We want people to have healthy and healthful lives and to have a future that is as promising as the one that was passed down to them,” said Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, executive director of the Maryland Environmental Health Network.
Advocates hope the amendment would give individual residents the legal status to challenge in court the state and local governmental actions they deem harmful to the environment. Citizens have only limited standing to sue in Maryland when aggrieved by regulatory decisions they believe harm the community.
A proposed “green amendment” failed to advance after being introduced late in last year’s General Assembly session. Environmental groups have coalesced around it to make it a priority this year, though some acknowledge it may take longer still to persuade lawmakers to act on it.
“It’s definitely not a slam dunk, but it’s good to get into people’s minds,” Raettig said.
Menhaden: It’s shaping up to be a make-or-break year for Virginia’s menhaden fishery.
Last year, the General Assembly refused to vote on a measure that would have brought state regulations into compliance with new federal menhaden catch limits for the Chesapeake Bay. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission could recommend a moratorium on all catches of the species if the state fails once again to take action.
The small, oily fish are important forage for marine creatures ranging from rockfish to whales. Commercially, menhaden are caught for use as bait or processed into fish oil supplements and animal feed. The new limit, approved by the ASMFC in the fall of 2017, reduced the allowable harvest in the Bay by more than 40 percent.
The commission made that determination despite finding that menhaden are not overfished. As it lowered the Chesapeake limit, it raised the cap along the Atlantic coastline by 8 percent. Omega Protein, which operates a menhaden processing facility in Reedville, VA, is fighting the measure, saying it has no scientific basis.
Farm conservation funding: Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed providing $90 million in state funds to help farmers put in conservation practices that would prevent the runoff of nutrients and sediment from crop fields and feedlots. That’s more than triple what state lawmakers have made available in years past for pollution-controlling measures on Virginia’s 46,000 farms — and closer to what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the state needs to invest in agricultural cost-share conservation programs.
Agriculture is the largest source of sediment and nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. The Virginia cost-sharing program helps farmers implement more than 50 types of best-management practices to reduce polluted runoff, such as fencing livestock out of streams, installing waterfront buffers and planting cover crops.
“These are some of the most cost-effective steps we can take as a state to restore the Bay and local streams,” said Rebecca Tomazin, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia office.
The Virginia Conservation Network, which represents the conservation interests of 120 organizations, is calling on the legislature to set aside $100 million for the program.
Virginia could easily pay for the increase from the $550 million in unexpected revenue it has collected, said Lee Francis, deputy director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
Stormwater funding: To stay on pace to reach its Bay cleanup goals by 2025, Virginia must boost its financial commitments toward reducing stormwater pollution in cities and suburban landscapes, environmental groups say.
Since debuting in 2014, the state’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund has helped finance 175 projects in 51 localities. Northam is urging lawmakers to set aside $50 million for the matching grant program, which is directed at local communities. That total matches the amount sought by many environmental groups.
But “it will take a lot more than that over many years, of course,” said Pat Calvert, the Virginia Conservation Network’s policy and campaigns manager for land and water.
Lawmakers appropriated $20 million for the program for the 2019 fiscal year after providing no funding the two previous years. Calvert and other supporters hope the legislature will amend the budget left behind by outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe, which zeroed out the program for 2020.
Coal ash: The stage is set for another bruising battle over the nearly 30 million tons of coal ash buried across Virginia.
The byproduct of coal-fired electricity production can be found near the banks of four major Chesapeake tributaries in the state. Laden with heavy metals, coal ash has been linked to cancer, respiratory problems and other illnesses.
For the last two sessions, state lawmakers have approved delays on the closure of the waste sites, former coal ash settlement ponds drained of their water.
Dominion Energy, which owns the sites, has long advocated leaving the ash at the bottom of the former impoundments, capping it with a layer of soil and a synthetic liner. It released a report in November estimating it would cost $5.7 billion to excavate and partly recycle the underground material.
Environmentalists contend that “cap-in-place,” while endorsed by the EPA, will still allow pollution to seep into the groundwater and nearby rivers. They are pushing legislators to require the company to dig up the ash and either recycle it or move it to modern, lined landfills.
Francis of the conservation voters league calls coal ash “one of the biggest environmental threats we face in Virginia. We’re at a point [when] lawmakers know they have to act.”