Last week, my colleagues and I advocated for a pair of clean water bills in Maryland and Virginia, which were spurred by research completed by the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR). One bill would create a Private Well Safety Program in Maryland, and the other would create an aboveground chemical storage tank registration program in Virginia.
Both laws are sorely needed. This two-part blog series explains why. Part I, which ran yesterday, explores our collaborative work to protect clean drinking water in Maryland. Today, we look at our efforts to protect Virginia’s health and environment from toxic chemical spills.
As climate change intensifies, Virginia’s coastal and riverine communities are increasingly under threat of sea-level rise, hurricanes, and storm surge. Research published in 2019 by my colleague David Flores, a senior policy analyst at CPR, and CPR Member Scholar Noah Sachs found that flooding not only impacts socially vulnerable communities but also increases risks of toxic spills and releases at many chemical and hazardous facilities in the commonwealth.
One gap that heightens this risk: lack of regulations for aboveground tanks that store dangerous chemicals.
Aboveground storage tanks (ASTs) storing hazardous substances are not regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the state of Virginia, despite a 50-year mandate under the Clean Water Act for EPA to develop rules to prevent spills from ASTs. There is little to no information about the contents, condition, or location of ASTs in the state, yet they continue to collapse, dislodge, and spill their contents throughout Virginia communities and waterways, such as in Chesapeake in 2008, in Cloverdale in 2017, and in Bristol last year.
Since previous efforts to regulate aboveground chemical storage in Virginia were unsuccessful, my colleagues and I engaged community members to better understand chemical and flood risks concerns across the state and conducted additional research on aboveground chemical storage in Virginia. Last year, we published Tanks for Nothing: The Decades-long Failure to Protect the Public from Hazardous Chemical Spills, which found that the federal and most state governments are failing to protect millions of Americans, including Virginians, from AST releases and vastly underestimating the threat they pose to public health and our environment.
We estimated that there are between 2,720 and 5,405 unregulated chemical ASTs in Virginia, and found that between 2000 and 2020 there were at least 4,800 tank-related instances of spills, releases, improper storage, and illegal dumping. This amounts to 230 incidents each year, significantly impacting the state’s most populous cities and counties (home to roughly one-third of Virginia’s 9 million residents).
Working for Protections
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Ten states have comprehensive regulatory programs for chemical ASTs, and Virginia — and 39 other states — need them. Fortunately, Virginia lawmakers are on the case.
This year, Virginia Del. Alfonso Lopez introduced House Bill 899, which would:
- Require the State Water Control Board to create a registration program for aboveground storage tanks that contain certain federally designated hazardous substances.
- Authorize the board to undertake corrective action in the event of a discharge of a hazardous substance.
- Require tank owners to notify certain parties in the event of a release of a regulated substance.
Last week, David, Noah, and I testified alongside our partners in support of the bill at a hearing held by the commonwealth’s House Agriculture, Chesapeake, and Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on the Chesapeake, and 20 organizations signed onto our written comment in support. Unfortunately, due to industry opposition and the recent shift in Virginia’s political power, the bill was tabled.
This was a disappointing outcome that leaves Virginia communities and waterways increasingly at risk of toxic floodwaters. But we will continue to work with our partners to advocate for stronger protections at the state and federal level. To learn more about our efforts to secure critically needed regulations for aboveground chemical storage, check out our recent webinar on the topic and follow us on social media.