Chemical spills in West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia this year have brought toxics to the forefront of discussions about common pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay, even though each of them occurred just outside the watershed.

A panel discussion on toxics and water quality at the Choose Clean Water Coalition conference in Staunton, VA, in early June brought to light how little is known about substances that, in many cases, are permitted to be released into waterways. The panel included local experts on toxic contamination who discussed current regulations, with a focus on the status of permits and laws in Virginia.

Ryan Murphy, a student at the University of Richmond School of Law, discussed a report on better strategies to protect Virginians from toxic chemicals that he co-authored with his professor, Noah M. Sachs. The report says that toxics are a greater threat in the commonwealth than in states that have enacted regulations tougher than those required by federal law.

“While Virginia has made strides in many fields of toxics legislation, further steps are needed,” Murphy said. “In general, our approach to regulating toxic chemicals hasn’t changed much since the 1980s. We focus on criminal actions.”

Murphy pointed out that permit compliance is high — about 98 percent — among 280 facilities in the state that are allowed to discharge some pollutants into local water bodies. Several of those facilities do not have limits on the amount of chemicals they are allowed to discharge, and environmental law rarely addresses how many of those plants can locate in a given region, leading to a collection of plants discharging large amounts of pollutants in some areas, Murphy said.

Dr. Peter deFur, president and owner of the consulting firm Environmental Stewardship Concepts, LLC, and an affiliate associate professor in the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the need for additional toxics regulation in Virginia indicates the shortcomings of such regulations on a federal level.

When it comes to toxics, he said, “Some of our most pressing problems today can be traced back to 1972, when the Clean Water Act was passed.”

deFur said federal toxics regulations have lagged behind other water quality efforts and reference only a fraction of the chemicals used by industries across the country. The Clean Water Act set water quality criteria for only a handful of toxic chemicals, and deFur called the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 that followed “largely spineless,” though it began regulating public exposure to lead, as well as PCBs, a known carcinogen that was widely used in a variety of industrial products.

He said original efforts to control toxics were based on the information available at the time about a small number of chemicals known to be harmful to humans and wildlife.

“Those intervening years have seen the registration of tens of thousands of new chemicals,” deFur said. “The current number is approaching 100,000 in the U.S.”

Some states and regions have responded to what they perceive as shortcomings in federal toxics regulations by enacting laws that are stricter than the federal requirements.

A goal to reduce pollution from toxics, which had been missing from drafts of the latest Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, did make it into the new agreement signed in June.

The agreement includes a commitment to improve research on the impacts of PCBs and mercury — the two most widespread toxics in the Bay and its watershed — as well as impacts from contaminants of emerging concern, such as pharmaceuticals.

In Virginia, about 18 percent of water bodies are impaired because of the presence of toxic chemicals, according to a 2013 report from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality on Toxics Reduction in State Waters. Of those, 99 percent are listed for fish consumption warnings primarily for PCBs and mercury.

Murphy said the data that’s available provides only a limited picture of toxic contaminants in the state because reporting requirements apply only to industrial facilities and don’t measure some aspects of exposure or risk.

The Jan. 9 chemical spill into the Elk River near Charleston, WV, brought to light what Murphy said is the need for more federal oversight of the products being used at industrial plants.

While the plant was required to keep an inventory of the chemicals it used, the toxics that leaked into the river were almost completely unknown and the facility hadn’t been inspected in more than a decade, Murphy said.

“The recent incident in West Virginia calls us to ask whether we’re doing enough to protect state water bodies,” Murphy said.

He added that states should also require transportation companies to report the chemicals they are carrying through communities so that local officials can better respond in the case of a spill.

When an oil car derailed in Lynchburg, VA, at the end of April, misinformation swirled about whether the Bakken crude also contained chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing and whether those chemicals might be harmful to water quality and drinking water, for example.

“Fortunately, drinking water was not affected, but this was the sixth derailment since July 2013, three of which involved Bakken crude, which is more flammable (than most crude oil),” Murphy said.

deFur suggested that these unknowns about modern chemicals present the biggest possible risks to residents and water quality. He mentioned a study by the U.S. Geological Survey of 139 “emerging contaminants” that may not be on any list of harmful chemicals, yet their impacts on human and environmental health are not fully known. These include categories like antibiotics, antidepressants and nicotine breakdown products.

“We have a large number of chemicals and we don’t know what’s going on,” deFur said. “We don’t know which are estrogenic chemicals and which aren’t,” deFur said, mentioning a category of chemicals that mimic estrogen in the human body.

Not all of these chemicals come from industrial uses, either. A DEQ employee in the audience pointed out that residents cleaning out their swimming pools at the start of summer with little regard for the chemicals that may be present have caused fish kills in some Northern Virginia waterways.

“If we don’t know, that doesn’t mean it’s harmless,” deFur said in response.

He brought up another category, legacy toxins — which are perhaps the most pernicious category of chemicals — leaked into the environment decades ago, but which persist in groundwater and river bottoms.

“The laws of physics means that these legacy toxins don’t go away. ‘Away’ is largely the bottom of the rivers, our groundwater and our soils,” deFur said.

Also on the panel of experts was the director of a nonprofit that works along the Anacostia River. Dennis Chestnut, director of Groundwork Anacostia, knows — or is quickly learning — plenty about the insidious nature of legacy toxins in an urban environment.

He has seen firsthand the impact that unknown chemicals can have on residents living near the river, especially those who eat fish directly from its waters despite warnings.

“The real canary is the catfish. Those bottom feeders indicate where the real problem lies ultimately, and that’s in the (river) sediment,” he said.

Chestnut’s organization is part of an initiative called United for a Healthy Anacostia, which recently formed, in part, to call for toxic sediment on the river bottom to be addressed.

The District Department of the Environment is studying these legacy toxins, the best way to remove or otherwise address them, and who will ultimately be responsible for doing so.<