January 20, 2014

Fixing Virginia’s toxic chemical problem

In the wake of the toxic chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia that contaminated the city’s water supply, citizens across the country are wondering if it could happen to them.

Given gaps in our environmental and chemical regulation regime, the answer is a resounding yes.   For the past year, I’ve been investigating problems of chemical storage and contamination in Virginia, and this week, the University of Richmond School of Law released a new report authored by me and law student Ryan Murphy, “A Strategy to Protect Virginians from Toxic Chemicals.”  

This report is the first comprehensive study of chemical dangers in the Commonwealth and calls for major reforms.

Virginia has a self-image as a pristine, primarily agricultural state but we found that Virginians are subjected to a wide variety of risks from industrial chemicals.  The reality is that Virginia ranks worryingly high in the amount of toxic chemical releases into our water and air compared to other states. Two million Virginians live in communities that fail atleast one federal health standard for air pollution. Fish consumption advisories have been issued for nearly all major Virginia waterways due to toxic contamination. 

The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a wake-up call for the Commonwealth to address the toxic threats in our own backyard.

We document the industrial releases of toxic chemicals into our air and water, the storage of millions of pounds of chemicals and toxic coal ash near waterways, and the dangers from contaminated sites that are not covered by the federal Superfund program.  And to provide the big picture of what we’re really exposed to, we also document how citizens are exposed to toxic substances in common consumer products.

The report identifies several hundred chemical storage sites across the Commonwealth that pose potential hazards to public health, ranging from explosion and fire to chronic health effects in the event of leaks.  We found more than sixty-five facilities that each store over one million pounds of toxic substances.  In comparison, about 100,000 pounds of chemicals leaked from the tanks in West Virginia.  

Many of these large chemical storage locations are located on major rivers.  For example, chemical storage tanks located near the South River, the Shenandoah River, the New River, and the headwaters of the James River contain more than a million pounds of toxic chemicals.  The chemicals stored include the highly corrosive sulfuric acid, toxic sodium chlorate, highly flammable isopropyl acetate, and fuel oil. 

Unfortunately, Virginia’s waters are just as threatened by toxic chemicals as those in West Virginia.  We need to inspect these major chemical storage facilities annually and stop putting the public and local emergency responders at risk.

In addition to the risks from toxic chemical storage, we found:

  • Virginia’s waterways are the second worst in the nation, measured by the amount of toxic chemicals discharged into them.
  • Over 270 companies are legally permitted by the Commonwealth to discharge toxic chemicals into Virginia’s waterways. 
  • The federal government has identified eight coal ash disposal sites (most located along major waterways) as “significant hazards” because of their threat to the environment.
  •  In 2011, the latest year for which data is available, industries in Virginia emitted more toxic chemicals to water, air, and land than industries in thirty-six other states.
  •  The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has about 30 full time personnel devoted to implementing toxic chemical laws.  In contrast, North Carolina, which is slightly larger in population, has about 100 full-time employees for its toxic chemical program. 

The report calls for an overhaul of Virginia’s approach to toxic chemical regulation, including:?

  • Increasing funding and personnel at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality;
  • Enacting legislation requiring responsible parties to clean up contaminated sites not addressed under the federal Superfund program;
  • Issuing permits with stricter pollutant limits, completing more inspections, and expanding enforcement authority;
  •  Regulating coal ash from power plants as a hazardous waste;
  • Enacting legislation to reduce consumer exposures to toxic chemicals from products such as children’s toys, electronics, furniture, and construction materials. 

The regulatory programs Virginia has in place are barebones and fragmented, and we need to get serious about using state authority to protect the public.  We do not want to see another accident, like the one in Charleston, which could cripple Richmond, Newport News or another city.

Noah M Sachs, Professor, University of Richmond School of Law. Bio.

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