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Lawmakers douse bill expanding water board review of environmental impact on certain communities

The Virginia State Capitol.
The Virginia State Capitol.(Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 5:38 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. -- Lawmakers knocked down a proposal to update state law that considered how future development could affect water quality for communities that historically have been economically or socially disadvantaged.

Del. Rodney T. Willett, D-Henrico, introduced House Bill 393, which died in committee in January along a party line vote. The State Water Control Board would have been required to analyze the social and economic implications of a development’s impact on water quality in low-income communities, including rural locales that rely on water sources for drinking, farming and livestock.

The additional provision in Willett’s bill would have expanded the water board’s review of a project from just its environmental impact to the project’s environmental impact on humans who might need additional protections, advocates said.

The Department of Environmental Quality oversees the water board, which sets water quality standards, and develops policies for the conservation of water resources. It also sets requirements for the reuse and treatment of sewage and wastewater.

Regulation and testing would help ensure clean water access for those communities, with the process paralleling that of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board, which is also overseen by DEQ, Willett said.

“Some of the things we were doing for clean air we were not doing for clean water in terms of the regulatory process,” Willett said.

State lawmakers passed the Environmental Justice Act in 2020. The bill outlined the state’s commitment to environmental justice, and defined the terms and communities involved in the effort.

This legislation rippled through regulatory agencies who examine policies and applications. The State Air Pollution Control Board under DEQ must now consider “site suitability,” or how a project will impact the area and community where it is located. A regulatory panel is currently exploring new rules on how environmental justice efforts can be implemented.

The process of site suitability is an element of analysis that Peggy Sanners, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said could also potentially be applied to the work of the water board. Sanners testified on behalf of the bill. It is relevant that DEQ is conducting a regulatory development process to determine site suitability, she said.

The water board authorizes projects and developments in communities where water quality could be impacted. For example, pipeline proposals that would discharge potential pollutants into waters currently go through the water board to make sure water quality would not affect nearby communities, according to Jessica Sims from Appalachian Voices. The group advocates for clean air, water and energy.

“If a project can cause economic impact, the social and economic demographics should receive review,” Sims said.

Pollutants discharged into the water at certain levels can change the quality of the water, said Peter Anderson, Appalachian Voices Virginia policy director. Sediment pollution from pipeline construction can make its way into wells used for drinking water in rural communities, according to Anderson.

“There’s an old saying in environmental policy that ‘the dose makes the poison,’” said Anderson.

Residents in rural communities who rely on drinking wells instead of municipal water services face difficult and costly repairs when wells are polluted, according to Anderson. Communities that rely on their water source for farming and livestock would have been protected from water quality degradation, advocates testified.

Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, raised a question about how the water board would gather data on economic and social impact in communities.

Mike Rolband, DEQ director, responded that the DEQ had no position on the legislation and that the governor’s office was still reviewing the legislation. The office responded to a follow-up question that they are no longer doing that because the bill is dead.

The arguments made against the bill revolved around the cost of who would pay for lab analysis tests to collect data on water quality around a development, according to Anderson.

Willett also introduced HB 1228 which would have placed the cost of additional tests on permit applicants building near water, Anderson said.

Jacqueline Goodrum, a conservation policy associate for Wild Virginia, a nonprofit organization in support of conserving wild lands and waters, spoke in support of the bill. Communities should have a say on what happens to their waters, which can enhance property values and draw tourism, Goodrum said.

“This does not create a new obligation for DEQ,” Goodrum said. “This is an analysis that must already be considered under the anti-degradation policy as well as the Clean Water Act.”

Advocates wanted the language included in Virginia code to highlight and emphasize the analysis in order to ensure fair decision making and compliance with the standard when issuing permits.

Delegates in the Republican-majority House objected because the bill is a regulatory matter, according to Willett.

Legislators in both chambers recently passed a bill that would transfer the authority of the air and water citizen boards to issue permits and orders to the DEQ. Lawmakers this session have established that the boards will have less responsibility.

“Without this language included in the code, communities that have been historically disadvantaged, including minority and rural communities, are less protected from potential future water pollutants,” Willett stated.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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