“Mind-boggling” was the response I heard from Bay advocates upon their learning that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality had proposed a new permitting policy governing nutrient pollution that not only failed to require limits in all permits for sewage treatment plants and relevant industries, but would also allow for 100 percent increases in nutrient pollution discharges.

The DEQ’s failure to take the necessary action to protect Virginia’s waters defies logic when sewage treatment plants and factories are the single largest source of nutrient pollution in Virginia waters. As incredulous as it sounds, the new proposal actually allows industrial giant Philip Morris USA’s plant near Richmond to discharge twice as much nitrogen pollution into the historic James River as it did last year.

The Town of Onancock’s sewage treatment permit contains no nitrogen pollution limits whatsoever.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation challenged both permits a year ago because they lacked any requirement to control or reduce nitrogen pollution.

The DEQ’s policy does impose needed nutrient reduction planning and monitoring requirements on the state’s 120 largest industrial and municipal dischargers of nutrient pollution. But for Virginia’s lead environmental agency to propose permits like the Onancock permit without nitrogen pollution limits is not only indefensible, it is also illegal.

Such permits violate the Clean Water Act. CBF President William C. Baker recently concluded that should such permits be issued, “litigation may be the only tool the CBF has left to protect the Bay.”

Baker also noted that the DEQ action falls shortly on the heels of Virginia’s reluctance to readily embrace a cost-effective solution to reduce nutrient pollution from sewage treatment plants.

As reported in the May 2004 Bay Journal, (See “Report says VA could treat waste water for half of early estimate.”) Dr. Clifford W. Randall, a leading authority on reducing nutrient pollution, told state policy makers how Virginia could quickly and cost-effectively achieve approximately 70 percent of its nutrient pollution reduction goals set by the Chesapeake Bay Program. Randall found that Virginia can reduce nutrient pollution from these plants for considerably less money than previously thought by using excess capacity currently available at the plants, innovative technologies and long-term funding methods.

He concluded that costs to implement state-of-the-art pollution controls over the next five years could be cut dramatically when compared with previous estimates. Virginia can modernize outdated sewage treatment technology for about one-tenth of the $1.2 billion sticker price cited by the Chesapeake Bay Program. That means that for less than a dollar a week per household, Virginians could make a substantial investment to reduce pollution while creating a legacy of healthier rivers, streams and Chesapeake Bay.

The tepid response to this positive news from various political players, combined with the flawed policy proposed by the DEQ, typifies the political malaise in Virginia that is hindering efforts to reduce nutrient pollution. Some legislators, for example, rather than pushing forward Virginia’s tributary strategies—which are already years behind schedule—are advocating for delay of their implementation.

Meanwhile, the Virginia Association of Municipal Wastewater Agencies argues for extending the Chesapeake 2000 water quality deadline from 2010 to 2015.

Despite recent budget increases appropriated by the General Assembly, funding to implement treatment plant upgrades remains woefully inadequate. In fact, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources W. Tayloe Murphy acknowledged in a recent major speech that there is “widespread indifference” among elected officials and stakeholders when it comes to funding natural resource protection in Virginia.

The commonwealth shares a 400-year history with the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. It is way past time for Virginia to require and implement dramatic reductions in nutrient pollution from sewage treatment plants and industrial polluters.

When one of every two streams the state monitors fails to meet Clean Water Act standards, we must cure the political malaise that threatens the future of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.

Today, not tomorrow, is when Virginia should require state-of-the-art nitrogen pollution permit limits and invest substantial new money in its efforts to save the Bay.