Jockeying has already begun in Virginia over legislation to determine the fate of the state’s coal ash pits, and new oyster-related measures are in the works in both Maryland and Virginia as the two states’ lawmakers begin their annual legislative sessions today.Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has declared support for a bill that would require coal ash to be removed from unlined storage pits. This coal ash impoundment is at Possum Point in Virginia, near the Potomac River. (Dave Harp)

In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam last week declared his support of legislation that would require coal ash produced by the state’s power plants to be removed from unlined pits and either recycled or deposited in safer, lined landfills.

The byproduct of coal-fired electricity generation, the ash is laced with heavy metals and has been linked to cancer, respiratory problems and other illnesses. An estimated 30 million tons are being stored at sites near Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

Dominion Energy, which owns the sites, estimates that such a cleanup would cost billions of dollars. The Richmond-based company has long advocated leaving the ash where it is, capping it with a layer of soil and a synthetic liner. Legislators have delayed that plan for the last two years, though, amid opposition from environmental groups.

“The data has clearly established that Dominion’s original approach will not work and instead leave communities and drinking water resources at risk, especially as we are experiencing stronger and more frequent storms like Hurricane Florence,” said Nate Benforado, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

Northam also is pushing two bills designed to reduce conflicts between oyster farmers and other users of tidal waters. They were recommended by a stakeholder workgroup the governor formed last year seeking to ease growing friction over leasing for shellfish aquaculture in a state that is the East Coast’s leading producer of farmed oysters.

One bill would streamline the process for allowing the city of Virginia Beach to dredge boating channels in the Lynnhaven River while ensuring that the many lease holders there get compensated if their aquaculture operations are affected. The other bill would tweak the review of lease applications statewide by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. That measure would raise some fees in an attempt to curtail speculative leasing by those not planning to engage in clam or oyster cultivation themselves.

Leases for oyster aquaculture have led to conflicts in both Maryland and Virginia between oyster farmers, waterfront homeowners and recreational users of the river. Here, oyster cages are anchored in a leased spot on Virginia's Lynnhaven River. (Dave Harp)

Maryland lawmakers as well will see at least one bill related to aquaculture leasing conflicts. The St. Mary’s County board of commissioners decided Tuesday to ask for legislation that would bar the state from issuing any “water-column” leases within 600 feet of the county’s shores unless the affected property owners agree to them. The vote was 3 to 1, with one commissioner recusing himself because an aquaculture lease is pending in front of his waterfront home.

The leasing bill comes on the heels of a six-month moratorium the commissioners imposed in December on the use of commercial docks to work any new state-issued water-column leases, in which oysters are raised in cages on the bottom or in floats at the surface.

Waterfront homeowners in St. Mary’s, one of Maryland’s fastest growing counties, have complained that cages and floats interfere with recreational uses of the water, including boating, swimming and water-skiing. Oyster farmers have countered that the state Department of Natural Resources already takes such concerns into account. They have warned that such restrictions will short-circuit the revival of the state’s oyster farming industry, which is putting more environmentally beneficial shellfish in the Chesapeake Bay while also generating jobs and tax revenue.

The Southern Maryland county is one of the state’s oyster farming hotbeds, with 99 leases issued there, covering nearly 900 acres of water. About one-fourth of those are water-column leases, while the rest only permit growing oysters on loose shell on the bottom, much as they do in the wild.

If the bill is approved, St. Mary’s would become the only county in the state where landowners could place conditions on oyster aquaculture leases issued by the state.

“People have been asking us to pause this cage leasing and to look at some alternatives,” Commissioner Michael Hewitt said Tuesday. “I don’t know if it’ll pass, but at least it’ll raise awareness.”

The opening day of Maryland’s legislative session is drawing a rally in support of the Clean Energy Jobs Act. In Virginia, activists plan to mark opening day with a news briefing about their priorities, which include closing the coal ash pits, promoting more solar energy and advocating for Virginia to join a compact of states that requires coal plants to make a payment for emitting emit carbon dioxide.