Chesapeake Bay issues generally fared well during the 2015 Virginia General Assembly, whose short, six-week session adjourned on time for the first time in 15 years.
The legislature passed bills to protect water quality; address impacts of climate change; promote clean and alternative energies; support land conservation; and create stiffer penalties to discourage oyster poaching. It also approved a biennial budget that keeps conservation-related funding mostly even with last year’s budget.
Funding for measures to reduce nonpoint source pollution from agriculture stayed level with last year at almost $27 million, an outcome that environmentalists considered a win for a tight budget year. This was an increase of $10.7 million over Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s budget request. The funding will help meet the pent-up demand for pollution controls on farms by providing cost-share funds and technical assistance.
In spite of efforts to water down newly implemented stormwater regulations — including a proposal to exempt houses of worship from the stormwater utility fees — the program remained intact. In addition to funding from previously authorized bond proceeds, local governments will be able to access an additional $5 million for matching grants for urban stormwater best management practices.
During the legislative session, Virginia headlines focused on legislation — endorsed by McAuliffe — that will relieve Dominion Virginia Power from many elements of state oversight in exchange for freezing base rates (about half of a customer’s total bill) for five years. The utility has said that freedom from oversight was necessary to put in new Clean Air Act requirements. The legislation, which was signed by the governor before the session ended, was opposed by Attorney General Mark Herring and utility and environmental watchdogs because it reduces state oversight key to ensuring that rate increases are reasonably representative of costs.
The controversy over that legislation overshadowed energy legislation that designated solar energy to be “in the public interest.” Other legislation created the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority, which is charged with accelerating solar development in Virginia and bringing at least 400 megawatts of solar-generated electricity online by 2020. The legislature also increased the cap for net-metering — the amount of energy that can be generated by a homeowner from alternative energy sources in excess of actual usage and sold to the grid — from 500 kilowatts per month to 1,000 kilowatts. The new legislation will give Virginia residents more renewable energy options.
Like the two previous Virginia governors, McAuliffe pledged to permanently protect 400,000 acres of open space and working lands during his four-year term. The annual amount available for the Land Preservation Tax Credit program, which allows tax credits for land permanently protected by easement, was reduced from $100 million per calendar year to $75 million. In addition, the maximum annual tax credit that can be claimed was reduced from $100,000 to $20,000 in taxable years 2015 and 2016 and $50,000 for each taxable year thereafter.
Many legislators viewed reducing the tax credits as a way to “recover” money for state coffers. Land conservation groups in Virginia consider tax credits to be the single most effective tool for private land conservation, but given the tight fiscal climate, expressed relief that tax credit limits were not further reduced — and were pleased that $5 million was allocated for conservation grants to protect open space, historic resources and farmland.
Meanwhile, efforts to repeal Virginia code that allows interstate natural gas utilities to survey private land without prior permission, and before submitting a formal project application, were not successful. Opponents of proposed natural gas pipelines in Virginia sought to limit the use of eminent domain.
After the 2014 release of a University of Richmond study on toxic contamination in Virginia, the legislature created the Water Protection and Toxic Chemicals Advisory Committee, which will make recommendations to protect state water resources from toxic chemical contamination. Another bill that would have required the state to conduct an annual inventory and plan for the remediation of all hazardous waste sites —not just the larger ones that qualify for EPA’s National Priorities List — failed to gain passage.
None of the bills that would reduce plastic pollution from intentional mass balloon releases, plastic bags and microbeads made it through the legislature. [See “Flurry of bills take aim at plastics that persist in local waters” on page 6.]
Sea level rise, especially in Virginia’s tidewater regions, was also on the minds of legislators. They passed a bill that requires localities in the Hampton Roads region to include strategies for addressing sea level rise in their comprehensive planning. Yet bills that would have created funding tools to assist residents subjected to repeated flooding were not passed, including a proposed low-interest loan program to help residents and businesses that are subject to recurrent flooding as well as a fund to assist homeowners in elevating or flood-proofing their homes.
Efforts to oppose the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers’ proposal to extend the definition of “waters of the United States” to include small and intermittent streams ultimately languished in committee. Several bills introduced to undermine the EPA’s proposed emissions guidelines for the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants under Section 111(d) of the federal Clean Air Act also failed to gain adequate traction.
Many bills that the legislature passed were awaiting final signature by the governor as the Bay Journal went to press.
Other budgetary and legislative actions of note included:
- Financial penalties for poaching oysters from sanctuary and leased lands will increase July 1, and convicted offenders may be restricted from commercial fishing for up to five years — up from a two-year restriction — and fined up to $10,000.
- The Shoreline Erosion Advisory Service, a program operating since 1980 but unfunded for the last two years, was allotted $150,000, starting in July, to resume technical assistance to landowners.
- The Department of Environmental Quality was charged with conducting a two-year study on stormwater management technical criteria in areas with a seasonal high groundwater table — a measure designed to address concerns that the Atlantic Costal Plain Aquifer is under stress from land subsidence and salt water intrusion.
- The DEQ will also study the long-term effects of the storage and land application of industrial wastes and sewage sludge on public health, residential wells, and surface and ground water.
- Local governments may now authorize the testing and monitoring of land application of biosolids. Facilities that generate these biosolids will have to pay a fee to support this testing and monitoring.