Water covers more than 70 percent of the Earth. We drink it, bathe in it, cook with it, depend on it for food, recreation, travel, and consistently use this resource in our everyday lives. Such a necessary part of human existence must be protected in order to provide Virginia’s citizens with clean, safe water sources.
Water pollution is an unfortunate byproduct of our industrial society. To meet society’s waste disposal needs, businesses, industries and others often use waterways to discharge pollutants. However, these practices are closely monitored by DEQ to make sure that minimal levels of pollutants enter Virginia’s waterways. The agency upholds water quality standards to ensure safe recreation and support a diversity of aquatic life. As of 2012, 51 waterways, 264 miles of rivers and streams, 2,710 acres of lakes and reservoirs, and 4 square miles of estuary have been classified as “fully restored.” In addition, 29 streams around the state are now classified as “exceptional waters.”
Discharge permits are effective tools that the agency uses to regulate facilities. These permits determine the types and amounts of pollutants that can be safely discharged. High levels of nutrient pollution pose a challenge to Virginia’s waters. This common form of pollution may result in algal growth that can reduce oxygen and even create “dead zones,” or areas that are unable to sustain life. Since 1995, levels of phosphorus and nitrogen have seen significant decreases.
DEQ employs several programs to ensure wise use of our finite water supply. The agency issues permits for the use of surface and ground water to ensure that in-stream and off-stream uses can continue to be met over the long term. This is achieved by balancing human water needs with sufficient in-stream flow for fish and wildlife habitat, dilution of pollution, recreation, and navigation. In partnership with affected stakeholders, DEQ identifies sources of surface and ground water, monitors availability, documents current levels of water use, and plans for meeting future expectations for these water sources. To balance these uses of Virginia’s water supply, DEQ relies on active, on-going scientific research and effective stakeholder engagement.
DEQ works to uphold the regulations that govern solid waste management, including reuse, recycling, storage, treatment and disposal. For example, since the founding of the agency in 1993, the number of tire piles has gone down considerably thanks to an aggressive cleanup effort. Abandoned tire sites, which once numbered more than 1,300 statewide, have declined to less than 130, all of which are relatively small piles.
For more than 20 years, older waste management facilities have been responsible for some land contamination. These older landfills do not meet modern design standards and have leaked contaminants into the land and ground water. Landfill production standards have since been heightened and designs have been improved, making waste management facilities safer and more protective. In addition, 85 percent of hazardous waste facilities (103 out of 120) now meet all human health standards. Since 1999, the number of annual waste site cleanups has steadily increased from less than 20 to more than 100.
Leaking petroleum tanks are the focus of another statewide cleanup effort. DEQ’s tank inspection program is in place to clean up leaking storage tanks, thereby revitalizing contaminated land. More than 30,000 leaky petroleum sites have been cleaned.
Coastal Zone Management
View the 25th issue of the Virginia CZM magazine.
As beachgoers, anglers and swimmers will tell you, Virginia’s coastal area is one of the most beautiful yet fragile aspects of our environment. Over the years, our coastal zone has experienced several challenges: decreasing oyster and fish populations, loss of wildlife habitat, increased nutrient pollution, and other, manmade, obstacles.
Alongside government agencies, DEQ takes a leading role in the Virginia Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Program, a valuable partnership that provides innovative and resourceful ways to preserve the Commonwealth’s coastal resources, and is helping to revitalize the unique character and ecological health of Virginia’s coast. Over its 25-year history, the program has seen a 5,000-acre increase in eelgrass habitat on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, hundreds of acres of restored and productive oyster reef habitat in the Rappahannock River, better protection for all Virginia’s secondary dune systems, dozens of new and enhanced public access locations, and habitat restoration sites on more than 3,500 acres of newly acquired land.
Virginia CZM’s most recent initiative recognizes that Virginia’s environmental future depends on a healthy ocean. Pressure on our ocean resources is growing as dramatically as our coastal population. Virginia CZM is working with stakeholders to develop a plan for more sustainable uses of our ocean resources and to find ways to minimize harmful impacts. DEQ’s work in Virginia feeds into a larger effort for the mid-Atlantic region. Virginia CZM is a founding member of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) and led the development of its Ocean Data Portal. Virginia CZM is also leading the region in developing a plan for reducing marine debris. Preventing the millions of pounds of marine debris that enters our tidal rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean, would have positive local and global impacts on our fisheries, tourism, health and economy. Over the last 20 years, the CZM program has demonstrated how partnership can overcome great challenges and result in great successes that benefit Virginia’s coastal resources.
The Chesapeake Bay
The Chesapeake Bay Program is a multi-state effort among Virginia and other jurisdictions in the Bay watershed. Since 1983, Bay restoration agreements have been in place to help revitalize it. Improving the health of the Bay is a statewide goal that DEQ shares with partners from state and local governments, environmental organizations, farmers, businesses and community volunteers. DEQ works with other agencies and with stakeholders to restore the living resources of one of Virginia’s most important bodies of water.
Virginia’s water quality standards drive DEQ in its efforts to restore the Bay, and reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus levels are at the forefront. This will allow for higher oxygen levels, increased populations of bay grasses and balanced levels of algae in our tidal waters.
Improving water quality has been the most pressing issue over the years, but restoring the Bay requires much more. Decreased levels of pollution are once again making the Bay and its tributaries hospitable to a wide variety living resources. Equally important is the rebuilding of natural habitats, and helping to restore the populations of number of species, including blue crab, oyster, striped bass, shad and other species of migratory fish. Improved water quality is critical to achieving these goals.
Watershed Cleanup Plans
Virginia’s waters are a precious resource, but they have also been subjected to our environmental footprint over the years. To help restore our impaired waterways, DEQ employs watershed cleanup plans (known as Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs) to restore waterways throughout Virginia. DEQ works closely with the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to develop implementation plans, which outline exact practices to be put in place to clean up the watersheds. Many aspects of our economy are responsible for increased levels of pollutants, such as residential development, agriculture, runoff and wastewater. These practices may result in high levels of bacteria, nitrogen phosphorus, sediment, and PCBs, which can pose a threat to the health of Virginia’s waters. Since 1993, DEQ has developed 272 watershed cleanup reports covering 825 watersheds. Though bacterial contamination has been the most common problem in Virginia waterways, the past 20 years have seen a significant downward trend in the amount of bacteria in stream segments studied statewide.
Recycling and Litter Prevention
DEQ supports recycling and litter prevention programs in public and private sectors, urging recycling program managers, solid waste planning units, local governments and citizens to better manage waste.
In 1989 the Virginia General Assembly required all towns, cities and counties to develop recycling options for their citizens. The legislation established a mandatory 10 percent recycling rate for each locality by the end of 1991, 15 percent by the end of 1993, and 25 percent by the end of 1995.
Regulations adopted in 1990 required localities to implement programs that annually meet or exceed the recycling rate mandated by the Code of Virginia. Reports on these activities quantify the amount of materials recycled, including paper, waste wood, automobiles, metal, textiles, automobile fluids, plastic, batteries, tires, glass, electronics, food waste and yard waste.
The annual reporting has shown that recycling programs are maturing and continue to grow. The state’s recycling rate has grown from 32.2 percent in 2005 to 43.5 percent in 2011. In 2012, the required reporting by jurisdictions was adjusted. Solid waste planning units (or localities with a population greater than 100,000) will prepare and submit annual recycling survey reports to DEQ. Each solid waste planning unit with a population under 100,000 will submit a recycling survey report every four years. DEQ provides annual grants to these localities in support of their litter prevention and recycling programs from the Litter Control and Recycling Fund. Eligible localities may apply for and receive grants based on population. In fiscal year 2013, DEQ awarded over $2.1 million to 307 Virginia localities.
Voluntary Remediation Program
Leftover pollutants are a big factor in contaminated land on abandoned or unused properties. These “brownfields” may have polluted soil and ground water. The Virginia Voluntary Remediation Program (VRP) is a DEQ initiative that encourages revitalization of contaminated land throughout the state. It is VRP’s mission to improve these brownfields and protect citizens from potentially dangerous contaminants. Many sites are converted from abandoned scrap yards and railyards into office complexes, medical facilities and other projects that enhance communities around the state. Since VRP was established in 1995, the program has developed over 275 brownfields sites and revitalized over 3,400 acres of land.
Pollution Response and Preparedness
Responding to pollution-related emergencies is a responsibility that DEQ shoulders across the entire state. However, it is also important to actively prepare for and prevent these emergencies from happening. Creating preparedness and contingency plans is a way that DEQ stays ready for a variety of environmental emergencies.
The agency’s Pollution Response Program (PREP) is in place to assist emergency officials and provide timely response to air, water and waste pollution incidents. DEQ also works in concert with the Virginia Emergency Response Team, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and various other government entities to resolve hazardous situations in a timely and coordinated manner.
Pollution prevention has been a key part of DEQ’s mission from its early days. Programs such as the Virginia Environmental Excellence Program (VEEP) challenge businesses and government agencies to go above and beyond the requirements and look for sustainable and innovative ways to lessen their environmental footprint. Manufacturers, military bases, state government agencies and universities have all answered that challenge, with over 400 facilities now a part of VEEP.
In partnership with the Virginia Tourism Corporation and the Virginia Hospitality and Tourism Association, DEQ works to reduce the impact of the tourism industry through Virginia Green, a voluntary, statewide program dedicated to stewardship and eco-friendly travel. More than 1,300 hotels, restaurants, attractions and other tourism businesses are now part of the program.
Environmental Impact Review
Ensuring that state and federal projects in Virginia are protective of the environment is a primary goal of the Office of Environmental Impact Review (OEIR).
Operating under nine state and federal mandates, each with different requirements, means that OEIR’s reviews are diverse. Government agencies, consultants and developers submit hundreds of projects to OEIR each year. For example, an OEIR coordinator may simultaneously complete reviews of a federal plan for outer continental shelf activities and an environmental impact report for construction of a state college football stadium.
Since April 1, 1993, OEIR has reviewed approximately 5,900 federal, state and local projects. This work continues the review program started at the Council on the Environment, one of DEQ’s predecessor agencies. Coordinated state reviews of federal projects became part of the statutory foundation of DEQ when the General Assembly created DEQ.
As part of this directive, OEIR responds to federal planning, regulatory development and program documents, environmental assessments and environmental impact statements pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act. The office also reviews major state construction projects (including acquisition), proposals for power plants and transmission lines, and requests for the creation or expansion of airport runways. In addition, OEIR must ensure consideration of impacts to farm and forest land when reviewing state projects.
Federal consistency reviews, which include public comment opportunities, represent the majority of projects submitted to OEIR. Federal actions, programs and plans (as well as federally funded municipal projects that affect coastal uses or resources) must be consistent with the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program. State laws also mandate that OEIR review proposals for oil and gas drilling in Tidewater Virginia, hydropower projects and mineral activities on state-owned lands.
To ensure that project proponents consider environmental as well as historic and transportation concerns, OEIR coordinates internally and with more than a dozen state agencies, regional representatives and local officials on each project. Reviewers consider the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of the project. Coordinated reviews may take from 30 days to six months depending on statutory and regulatory deadlines.
Since 1998, DEQ has encouraged and supported volunteer monitoring through a grant program and with staff available to provide technical assistance. In 2003, DEQ developed a formal procedure to incorporate citizen and other non-agency water quality monitoring data into the semiannual Water Quality Integrated Report. Since then, the amount of citizen and non-agency data included in the report has increased every year. For the 2012 report, citizen volunteers provided data from over 1,650 sample stations.