Virginia Must Act Now to Hold Polluters Accountable

Katlyn Schmitt
Darya Minovi

Aug. 30, 2021

Virginia is home to thousands of unregulated and aging aboveground hazardous chemical storage tanks, which, when exposed to storms or floods, may be at greater risk of failing or spills. This risk — and the threat it poses to our health and safety — is rising as our climate changes.

Since these tanks are not regulated by the state or federal government, we know very little about their number, condition, age, or contents. If storage tanks are improperly constructed or maintained, they are more likely to fail under stress, and could release any number of toxic chemicals into nearby communities.

In addition to threatening community health and safety, the spills may also exacerbate existing disparities. In Virginia, industrial facilities vulnerable to flooding are disproportionately concentrated in socially vulnerable areas, according to a 2019 report by our colleague, David Flores.

Virginia is no stranger to failing tanks. In 2008, an Allied Terminals tank in Chesapeake, Va., collapsed, seriously injuring two workers and releasing 200,000 gallons of liquid ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which upon contact or inhalation can cause irritation to skin, eyes, and the respiratory tract. Some of it also entered the Elizabeth River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board attributed the failure to defective welding — and Allied Terminals’ failure to inspect the welds to ensure they complied with industry standards.

This year, CPR staff co-authored a white paper with CPR Member Scholar Noah Sachs and other Virginia watershed experts to address this concern. The paper appeared in the Virginia Conservation Network’s 2022 Common Agenda, which is a joint environmental policy agenda of more than 150 organizations working across the Commonwealth.

The paper calls on Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to, at minimum, establish an aboveground chemical storage tank program that requires registration and reporting on the quantity, condition, and contents of tanks, which would enable regulators and emergency managers to better plan for flooding and extreme weather.

We also called on DEQ to adopt siting, construction, and maintenance standards for new and existing tanks, with inspections and reporting by qualified engineers to ensure tanks remain safe as they age. And finally, when spills do occur, mandatory comprehensive spill prevention planning and practices are needed to provide essential safeguards for human health and the environment.

Fenceline communities — those near major sources of pollution — suffer most when polluters discharge above legal limits, which are set to protect local water quality and wildlife. Yet, the Virginia DEQ lacks the funding, authority, and capacity to adequately pursue enforcement and compliance actions against polluters, which puts people of color and other marginalized communities most at risk.

Over the last two decades, Virginia lawmakers have slashed DEQ’s budget by $37 million per year, (roughly a fifth of the department’s 2021 budget) and, as a result, the agency has reduced staff by a third. Meanwhile, pollution permits are increasing in volume and complexity. But DEQ’s current permit fees don’t cover the cost of processing or implementing these permits, which are needed to protect Virginia’s air, land, and water.

In response, we co-authored another white paper in the 2022 Common Agenda focused on improving environmental enforcement and transparency for a cleaner, healthier Virginia. We urge the Virginia General Assembly restore DEQ funding to pre-2008 recession levels and grant the agency greater authority to respond to budgetary and programmatic needs, such as more staff to inspect businesses and facilities and crack down on polluters.

Specifically, DEQ needs authority to issue on-the-spot fines for minor violations, increase permit fees, and robustly pursue various enforcement actions to keep polluters in check.

Enforcement efforts must target and prioritize those most impacted: low-wealth communities of color already overburdened by pollution. A dedicated Environmental Justice Enforcement and Compliance division in the state attorney general’s office would support this goal.

We also recommend that DEQ increase transparency around its environmental enforcement and compliance efforts so frontline communities and policymakers better understand the agency’s annual performance results and needs.

To stay up to date on these pressing issues, please follow CPRBlog for future updates.

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