Northam proposes coal ash disposal, coastal protection bills

The beach with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel beyond (Southside Daily file photo/Courtesy of Carl Unterbrink)

Gov. Ralph Northam proposed a package of environmental legislation Thursday aimed at safely disposing of coal ash, helping coastal communities deal with flooding caused by climate change and continuing the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

The legislative agenda introduced includes a bill to allow the state to use an estimated $50 million in revenue from the sale of new carbon pollution credits for coastal resilience projects.

Northam said the state needs to play a larger role in reducing the risks of climate change, particularly along its coastline.

“In Hampton Roads, this threatens critical infrastructure like our port and the world’s largest naval base,” the Democratic governor said, referring to the Norfolk Naval Base. “It also threatens thousands of homes and puts the entire regional economy at risk.”

Northam has pushed Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program among Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states that mandates emission reductions in the power sector.

The Northam administration expects to generate about $65 million a year in new credits from carbon-emitting power plants but needs legislative approval to spend that money or it will stay with the utilities.

Northam is also proposing to use some of the money for economic development in coal communities in a bid to gain GOP support.

Republican leaders did not immediately respond to Northam’s proposal but have opposed joining RGGI in the past. Last year, Northam Republicans passed a bill that would have required legislative approval before Virginia can participate in the initiative, legislation that Northam vetoed.

Northam also backed legislation Thursday to require coal ash to be removed from unlined pits and either recycled or moved to EPA-approved landfills.

Coal ash is heavy metal laden waste left over from burning the fossil fuel to produce electricity. Virginia lawmakers previously put a hold Dominion Energy’s plans to close its largest coal ash ponds by leaving them in place and putting a cover over them. Dominion is the state’s largest electric utility.

Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, who is a lead sponsor of the coal ash legislation, said Dominion has become more open to moving or recycling coal ash than it was in previous years because neighboring states have had success doing so at lower-than-expected costs.

“We’re the only ones who aren’t recycling,” he said.

Dominion said in a report that it would cost billions of dollars to recycle its coal ash or move it to lined landfills. Company spokesman David Botkins was noncommittal on the legislation but said Dominion shares the “governor’s commitment to protect the environment” and is open to recycling coal ash as parts of its management plan.

“I expect we’ll have a conversation during the session about how to address the cost of this,” Northam said. “But I know we must move this material away from areas where it can contaminate our water.”

Northam is also supporting a GOP-backed bill to make it easier for rural communities to access matching grants to reduce polluted runoff from roads and parking lots that winds up in the Chesapeake Bay.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.