Balloons floating in water

Balloons seen floating near Tangier Island, VA, may be mistaken by sea turtles and other marine animals as food, while ribbons and strings, still attached, can entangle marine life. (File photo)

Virginia lawmakers voted to ban releases of nonbiodegradable balloons and phase out the use of polystyrene foam food containers in a recently-ended legislative session that also delivered a significant funding boost for pollution reduction efforts to help restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Peggy Sanner, Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the General Assembly made “remarkable” environmental progress in the 46-day session that wrapped up Feb. 27. The state budget adopted by the assembly, she added, would mark 2021 as “a historic year” for funding water-quality programs — assuming Gov. Ralph Northam goes along with all of the approved increases.

The budget provides an additional $100 million to upgrade sewage treatment plants, which Sanner said represents a down payment on roughly $600 million of improvements that lawmakers committed to eventually funding at 20 wastewater facilities. The upgrades would help Virginia meet its obligations to reduce nutrient pollution affecting the Bay by the 2025 cleanup deadline.

Other budget increases approved by lawmakers include the following:

• $25 million to help local governments curb stormwater pollution

• $30 million to help farmers put in runoff-reducing conservation practices

• $12 million more for the state Department of Environmental Quality to support its water, air and land programs

• $500,000 more for the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program, which subsidizes measures taken by homeowners and businesses to reduce erosion and polluted runoff

• $170,000 more for environmental literacy efforts which, combined with the governor’s proposed increase, would bringing the total to $250,000

The funding increases were made possible, Sanner said, after lawmakers learned that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia’s revenues were roughly $730 million greater than expected. Northam had not requested such funding boosts, particularly for wastewater plant upgrades.

“The General Assembly made it pretty clear they were committed to doing what needed to be done for the Bay,” Sanner said “We hope and expect that [Northam] will not change those appropriations.”

The Democrat-led legislature gave environmentalists little to be disappointed about during the session, said Pat Calvert, a policy and campaigns manager for the Virginia Conservation Network.

“I think we had a largely pro-conservation agenda,” Calvert said. “We were in a position not to be on the defense a lot.”

The 100-member House of Delegates conducted its business online because of COVID-19 concerns; the Senate, with 40 members, met in person at a science museum, where the larger space allowed for physical distancing. The session was extended by two weeks from its traditional 30-day length.

The governor can veto or adjust items in the budget that the assembly adopts, and lawmakers will meet briefly in a special “veto session” beginning April 7 to decide whether to accept or reject those changes.

Balloon releases

A balloon-release ban passed largely along party lines, with just seven GOP members voting to support the legislation. The measure bans only “intentional” releases. Violators are subject to a $25 fine per balloon. Children under the age of 16 are exempt from penalty.

“We’re not saying this is a ban against balloons, and we’re not trying to incriminate children for letting balloons go,” Calvert said, clarifying that the real target is organized balloon-release events.

Ban supporters point to research showing that during a four-year, statewide survey of marine debris, balloons were among the most commonly discarded objects found on three of the four beaches studied. Under existing law, it is legal to release up to 49 balloons per hour in Virginia.

Styrofoam ban

Food containers made of polystyrene, widely known by the brand name Styrofoam, are also a governor’s signature away from eventual banishment in Virginia.

The new law would require chain restaurants to phase out their use by July 1, 2023. All other food establishments would need to comply by 2025. The bill initially exempted nonprofits, schools and local governments, but the Senate removed that loophole for the sake of a “level playing field.”

Foam cup on beach

Environmental advocates say that polystyrene is notoriously difficult to recycle and splinters easily into tiny particles, which produce long-lasting microplastic pollution. (visviva, CC0 1.0)

Efforts to ban polystyrene are gaining traction nationwide. Maryland; Washington, DC; Hawaii; Maine; New Jersey; and Vermont have also enacted bans.

Groups pushing for the bans say that polystyrene is notoriously difficult to recycle and splinters easily into tiny particles, which produce long-lasting microplastic pollution.

Environmental justice

Two bills aimed at addressing environmental injustice failed to pass. Sanner said lawmakers seemed uncomfortable with the potential fiscal and other impacts of the bills, one of which would have required operators of proposed new or expanding polluting facilities to conduct more community outreach well before applying for permits. The other would have required all state agencies to consider the impacts on affected communities of proposed agency actions.

“We’ll keep on working on those next year,” Sanner said.

The movement will now turn to Northam, Calvert said, in the hope that the governor will takes steps administratively.

‘Advanced’ plastic recycling

One bill that passed over objections from many environmentalists would change Virginia’s recycling law to allow for “advanced recycling” of plastics, breaking them down through heat treatment to re-use their chemical constituents. The measure was introduced in the Senate by Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger, a longtime member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

Proponents, including the American Chemistry Council, say it’s a solution to the growing flood of plastic waste that can’t be recycled via conventional means. Opponents argue that it will only encourage the continued use of plastic packaging and containers, which should be phased out altogether because of their climate and environmental health implications.

Sanner said lawmakers delayed the bill’s effective date for a year, to allow for a study of its potential benefits and impacts.

Pipelines

Other new legislation would put more scrutiny on natural gas pipelines.

One bill reverses the order in which federal and state permits are applied for, requiring large pipeline developers to get state approval for key erosion-control and stormwater plans before acquiring federal Clean Water Act permits. Currently it’s the other way around. The change is needed, proponents say, to ensure that the state doesn’t merely follow the federal agency’s lead in making its decisions.

Another measure gives state environmental inspectors oversight over a broader variety of pipelines under construction. Currently, they only have authority over pipelines with a diameter greater than 36 inches. The bill that passed this session reduces that threshold to 24 inches.

The same legislation also clarifies when the state can issue stop-work orders. Supporters hope it will lead to more actions against the Mountain Valley Pipeline already under construction, with part of it running through the western portion of the state.

Electric vehicles

Lawmakers agreed to create a rebate program for buyers of electric vehicles, with purchasers of new or used models eligible to get back $2,500 of its cost. An additional $2,000 would be available to families with lower incomes who buy new electric cars. For used cars, it would be an additional $500. But the effort may be idled by a lack of funding. The House set aside $5 million, but the final budget included no money for the program.

Scenic designations

The lower Rappahannock River is poised to gain a “scenic river” designation after the assembly supported the move by wide margins. The classification applies to 79 miles of river, stretching from the VA Route 3 bridge in Fredericksburg to the Richmond/Lancaster and Essex/Middlesex county lines.

Water running into storm drain

Virginia lawmakers approved $25 million to help local governments curb stormwater pollution. 

If approved by the governor, the designation wouldn’t impose any new land-use controls or regulations, nor would it restrict boating or grant public access on private land along the river. Supporters say it would help promote ecotourism, add more weight to local voices in state and federal projects and require state agencies to consider natural and recreational impacts when making permitting decisions.

The program does impose an extra regulatory hurdle if an entity proposes a dam along a scenic river. (It must be approved by the General Assembly.) But a dam is unlikely to ever be constructed along the wide, slow-moving river.

The upper Rappahannock is already listed as scenic. A Department of Conservation and Recreation survey of the lower portion of the river last fall confirmed that the designation would be applicable there as well.

"This is an essential step to ensuring the future health of the Rappahannock River while still allowing it to be accessible to those who rely on it for their income and recreation,” said Anne Self, the lower river steward for the Friends of the Rappahannock group.

Also added to the scenic rivers system was a 6.5-mile segment of the South River in the city of Waynesboro.

Gold mining

What began as a bill that included a three-year moratorium on gold-mining operations larger than 10 acres in the state, ended up calling only for a study of the public health and environmental impacts of mining and processing gold and whether existing pollution laws are sufficient. The measure was prompted by a Canadian company’s gold-prospecting activities in Buckingham County. Gold mining itself, state mining experts say, is no more destructive than any other form of open-pit mining, but processing the raw ore to extract the gold uses harsh chemicals, including sodium cyanide, mercury and thallium, a metal once used to make rat poison. Results of the study must be submitted to the state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy by Dec. 1, 2022.

Other environmental measures gaining approval would:

  • Call for the Department of Conservation and Recreation to draw up recommendations for dedicated sources of funding for state parks. Proponents are looking for more revenue stability from year to year.
  • Rename the Secretary of Natural Resources. The new name for the cabinet-level position is Secretary of Natural and Cultural Resources, reflecting the position’s full responsibilities.
  • Give Virginia localities more authority to require tree planting and maintenance when sites are being developed. Lawmakers directed a stakeholder group to craft guidelines over the next year.
  • Require detailed erosion and sediment control plans be submitted upfront whenever natural gas pipeline permits are applied for.
  • Require an inventory of overall greenhouse gas emissions statewide.
  • Study carbon sequestration, particularly in agricultural practices, to help fight climate change.

Among the environmental bills that failed were ones that would have:

  • Prohibited the construction of a municipal landfill within 3 miles of any designated historic district, building or site.
  • Allowed school districts to buy up to 1,250 electric school buses. The state’s electricity providers, Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy, would use the batteries to store energy for the grid when the buses are not in use. Opposition to the bill centered around a provision allowing utility companies to also recoup program costs by raising electricity rates in general.

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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