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Environmental Groups Glad About Coal Ash Cleanup Law

By Adrian Teran-Tapia, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Environmental and consumer groups applauded Gov. Ralph Northam after he signed legislation this week that aims to protect water quality by cleaning up more than 27 million cubic yards of coal ash from unlined ponds in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Northam signed into law SB 1355, sponsored by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, and HB 2786, sponsored by Del. Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell. The legislation seeks to clean up coal ash sites in the city of Chesapeake and in Prince William, Chesterfield and Fluvanna counties.

The ash is the byproduct of coal-fired power plants operated by Dominion Energy. The law will require Dominion to move the coal ash to lined landfills or recycling it in a safe manner. It will also require the closure and removal of any coal combustion residuals units, including coal ash ponds or landfills, within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

“The potential risks to public health and water quality posed by unlined coal ash ponds in the commonwealth are far too great for us to continue with business as usual,” Northam said. “This historic, bipartisan effort sets a standard for what we can achieve when we work together, across party lines, in the best interest of all Virginians. I am proud to sign this legislation into law.”

Ingram echoed those sentiments.

“I was pleased to see that the General Assembly, the governor, House, Senate and Dominion were able to all come together and come up with a great solution for the coal ash ponds and in my opinion for the betterment of everyone,” Ingram said.

The bills were co-sponsored by several lawmakers, including Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William. They contributed key components, including a ban on “cap in place” closure of unlined ponds — a method critics said could lead to water pollution. Another component is a requirement that at least 25 percent of the coal ash be recycled for concrete or other beneficial uses.

“I think this represents the first time Virginia has adopted environmental regulations that are more protective of the environment than federal law,” Surovell said. “This represents an important step forward for environmental protections in Virginia.”

Carroll Foy said she was proud that “bipartisan hard work” produced the legislation.

“At town halls and meetings with my constituents, I promised that I would fight for legislation to recycle coal ash into concrete and other materials and to excavate and remove the remainder of coal ash to lined landfills because it was the most effective way to protect public health and the environment,” Carroll Foy said.

The cleanup is expected to cost several billion dollars. Under the new law, Dominion will be able to pass on the cost to its customers. As a result, state officials have estimated, the average monthly electric bill will increase by about $5.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network thanked Northam and state legislators for working across party lines to pass the legislation.

“This legislation, which is a result of four years of persistent work by Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks and our Virginia partners, is an historic step to solve the serious and lingering pollution problem of legacy coal ash,” said Nancy Stoner, the network’s president.

She said that four years ago, Naujoks began testing water wells near some of Dominion’s coal ash ponds and discovered that lead and arsenic had contaminated nearby groundwater.

“The dangers of coal ash, leaking into groundwater, drinking wells, our rivers and streams and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, have long been documented, and we’re proud of our role in fixing the problem,” Naujoks said.

Kendyl Crawford, director of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, said the new law was a step in the right direction. But she said the state should have required Dominion to bear the cost of the cleanup.

“It is long overdue that decades-old toxic coal ash is finally being addressed after having poisoned Virginia’s waterways. Removing millions of cubic yards of toxic material along waterways to safe, lined landfills is a step towards a healthier and more just state. Now, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that all coal ash, including that outside of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is safely recycled and disposed,” Crawford said.

“While we applaud the signing of this legislation that cleans up coal ash, once again Dominion, one of our electric utility monopolies, has shown their influence by pushing the fiscal burden to fall on electricity consumers.”

Animal Welfare Groups Happy About 2019 Legislation

Adrian Teran-Tapia, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Animal welfare advocates are pleased by the results of the 2019 General Assembly, which increased penalties for animal cruelty and mandated that pets receive more room to roam if tethered outside.

“Overall, this year’s General Assembly brought significant victories for Virginia’s dogs and cats,” said Matthew Gray of the Virginia Humane Society.

One of the standout bills was SB 1604, also known as “Tommie’s Bill,” which increases the penalty for animal abuse from a misdemeanor to a Class 6 felony.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, gained local and national attention and support after a pit bull was intentionally set on fire in February at a Richmond park. The dog, Tommie, eventually died from his injuries.

DeSteph’s bill and a companion measure in the House — HB 1874, introduced by Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland — easily passed both the House and Senate and now await the governor’s signature.

Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline, successfully sponsored two animal-related bills:

  • HB 1625 clarifies the definition of adequate shelter to protect an animal from heat or cold. The new definition says the shelter must be “properly shaded” during hot weather and have a windbreak during cold weather.
  • HB 1626 gives animal control officers permission to confiscate any tethered cocks that are being used or suspected of being used for animal fighting.

Orrock also introduced HB 1827, which said that animals tethered outside must have a tether four times the animal’s length or 15 feet long, whichever is greater. That bill cleared the House but was killed by a Senate committee.

According to the Humane Society, Virginia remains in the top tier as it relates to state animal protection laws, but several animal rights activists say Virginia can do more. For example, state officials should address the issue of tethering, said Tabitha Treloar of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, introduced a bill similar to Orrock’s tethering proposal in the Senate. SB 1025 passed after revisions and is on Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

It would require tether lengths to be at least three times the size of the animal or 10 feet long, whichever is greater. The bill would also prohibit adding weights to the end of the tether. Farm animals would be exempt from the tethering provisions.

Although the bill is not the big win animal activist hoped for, Treloar said it is a step in the right direction.

“We think this is going to provide additional clarity to the animal control officers who are responsible for enforcing code around the state, and we are glad we could come to a compromise,” Treloar said.

Also during the legislative session that ended Feb. 24, the General Assembly passed SB 1675, sponsored by Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg. It would mandate a minimum six-month imprisonment sentence for anyone who maliciously kills or injures any law enforcement animal. The punishment would be separate from and run consecutively with any other sentence.

Animal testing was another issue brought up this session. Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, proposed SB 1642, which sought to prohibit cosmetic manufacturers and suppliers from producing and selling any animal-tested cosmetics. This bill also would have authorized civil actions against violators, with penalties of up to $5,000.

“Animal testing for cosmetics is cruel and unnecessary and is deeply unpopular with the public,” Boysko said. “My bill aimed to ensure that animals are not harmed for cosmetics sold in Virginia, thus meeting consumer demand, saving animals and helping the U.S. match global progress on this issue.”

Boysko’s bill passed the Senate, 22-18, but was killed in the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources.

Virginia Legislature Makes Moves to Keep Tuition Down

By Adrian Teran-Tapia, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia’s General Assembly hopes to address rising college tuition costs by offering public universities incentives to cap tuition rates and ensuring that the public can comment on proposed tuition increases.  

State budget amendments proposed by the House Appropriations Committee include an additional $45 million in funding for universities that decide not to raise tuition.

 Under the proposal, each university that freezes tuition rates for the year would receive a share of the $45 million. Large universities, like Virginia Commonwealth University, George Mason, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, would receive $5 million to $6 million in extra funding.

Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, proposed HB 2476 last month to cap tuition increases for institutions that have raised their tuition more than the state average over the preceding 10 years. His bill was killed Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee.

Reid, who has been working on college affordability for the past two years, expressed hope rather than disappointment and said the budget proposal is a step in the right direction.

"There are different ways to approach [college affordability], and the members of the Appropriations Committee took a different approach," Reid said. "It may be that they already had this in the works, but I'm glad that we've at least gotten partially a good solution for the students and families of Virginia."

Reid applauded his colleagues and their efforts toward affordable higher education but said more needs to be done.

"I'm really pleased that we have this one-year solution in place, and it acknowledges that we as a state need to do more to make sure college remains affordable," Reid said. "However, so long as universities can opt out, this agreement does not go far enough. I'll continue to seek solutions that work for Virginia families."

In the Senate, Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, also has introduced legislation to help families with the rising cost of college. SB 1118, the "Tuition Transparency Act," would require universities to inform the public of any proposed increase in undergraduate tuition or mandatory fees and allow for public comment. Petersen’s bill passed the Senate unanimously Tuesday and was referred to the House Committee on Education.

"I'm about transparency. Period," Petersen said. "Here at the General Assembly, and in towns and cities across Virginia, public officials are required to have public meetings prior to increasing your taxes. Tuition shouldn't be any different."

Legislative Proposals Address Costs of College

By Adrian Teran-Tapia, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Since 2007, tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities has increased an average of 80 percent, with schools like Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William & Mary more than doubling their tuition.

The rising cost of a college education prompted Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, to file a bill to cap increases in tuition and mandatory fees at state institutions. Reid, the first college graduate in his family, which has lived in Virginia since the 1700s, said he is worried about young people and their future.

“I want to make sure that college remains affordable for other students and they have the same opportunities,” Reid said. “I know that having a college degree was instrumental in breaking the cycle of poverty that my family had lived in for generations.”

Reid’s bill, HB 2476, would prohibit tuition increases by schools that have raised their tuition more than the state average over the preceding 10 years. At other schools, tuition could not increase more than the inflation rate. The House Education Committee approved Reid’s measure and sent it to the House Appropriations Committee for a look at the financial impact.

That proposal is among about 20 bills filed this legislative session to hold down the cost of college for students in general or for specific groups of students or to ensure that Virginians have more notice about proposed tuition increases.

Republican Sens. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach and Glen Sturtevant of Richmond both filed measures like Reid’s to limit tuition increases. And Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, proposed that public colleges and universities be required to set a four-year fixed tuition rate for incoming freshmen.

Those Senate bills all have been shelved, but still alive are proposals to require schools to give more notice and take public comment about tuition increases. That is the focus of legislation introduced by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, and Del. Steven Landes, R-Augusta.

Miyares’ bill, which the House unanimously approved on Tuesday, would require the governing board of each public institution of higher education to establish policies for the public to comment during a board meeting on any proposed increase in undergraduate tuition or mandatory fees.

Under Landes’ measure, which won a unanimous endorsement Wednesday from the House Education Committee, governing boards would have to explain the reasons for a proposed tuition increase and take comments at a public hearing at least 30 days before voting on whether to raise tuition.

Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, also has a bill stating that “the governing board of each public institution of higher education shall permit public comment on the proposed increase at a meeting.” His legislation has been approved by the Senate Education and Health Committee and is before the Senate Finance Committee.

Also moving forward are bills to offer reduced tuition to students from the Appalachian region who are enrolled in the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, is sponsoring this legislation in the House, and Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, has a companion bill in the Senate.

Kilgore’s measure, HB 1666, passed the House unanimously and has been assigned to the Senate Finance Committee. Carrico’s bill is awaiting action by the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Miyares also proposed a bill to give tuition grants to students coming from the foster care system. A subcommittee unanimously endorsed the bill, and it is pending before the House Appropriations Committee.

A bill by Del. Paul Krizek, D- Fairfax, would offer in-state tuition for foreign service officers and their dependents. It has passed the House unanimously and been sent to the Senate.

In addition, several bills were filed to offer in-state tuition to college students who are in the process of applying for permanent residency in the United States. The House bills on this issue -- by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, and by Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington -- were killed in a subcommittee. But a Senate bill by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, is still alive. It’s awaiting a decision by the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Senate Panel Kills Stricter Seat-belt Law

By Adrian Teran-Tapia, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia will continue to have one of the weakest seat-belt laws in the country after a Senate committee killed a bill to require rear-seat passengers in a motor vehicle to wear safety belts and to make violating the state’s seat-belt law a primary offense.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 6-5 Wednesday to “pass by indefinitely” SB 1282, which sought to expand Virginia’s seat-belt requirements. Currently, only the driver and front-seat passengers must wear a safety belt (or children must be secured in a child restraint device). Violations are a secondary offense, meaning officers cannot pull drivers over and ticket them simply for not wearing a seat belt.

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who introduced the bill, shared his concerns over passenger safety with the committee.

“After years of decline in traffic fatalities, we are now seeing an increase number of traffic fatalities — to some extent related to distracted driving issues,” Barker said. “This bill is something that can help address that and something we need to do to help ensure the safety of those riding a vehicle in Virginia.”

Since 2014, Virginia has seen a 20 percent increase in traffic-related fatalities and a 20 percent increase in fatalities related to unrestrained passengers and drivers, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. In 2017, the latest year for which data are available, 308 unbelted drivers and passengers died in crashes.

Traffic safety groups supported Barker’s bill calling for primary enforcement to seat-belt usage for both front and rear passengers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that states with primary seat-belt enforcement laws “consistently have higher observed daytime belt use rates and lower fatality rates than secondary law states.” Virginia is among 16 states where seat-belt violations are a secondary offense. If someone is ticketed for the offense in Virginia, the fine is $25.

The Senate Transportation Committee split along party lines over the bill. The six Republicans on the panel voted to kill SB 1282; the five Democratic committee members voted to keep the bill alive.

Republican Sens. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield and John Cosgrove of Chesapeake questioned how police officers would enforce the seat-belt statute as a primary law.

After the vote, Georjeane Blumling, vice president of public affairs for AAA Tidewater Virginia, said she was disappointed but not surprised that the committee killed the bill.

“We knew that moving to a primary enforcement law was going to be a challenge,” Blumling said. “It has been [a challenge finding] balance between personal liberty and public safety for many years, and we appreciate Sen. Barker putting forth a bill to try to increase that safety by making seat belts both in the front and back required and a primary offense.”

Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, which promotes traffic safety, said he would continue to push for stronger seat-belt laws. “The bottom line is that the routine wearing of seat belts is the single most effective measure to reduce crash-related deaths and injuries,” Erickson said.

Erickson and Blumling will now wait for the House of Delegates to decide on a similar bill proposed by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax.

Krizek’s bill, HB 2264, calls for primary enforcement of the seat-belt requirement for drivers and front-seat passengers but secondary enforcement for rear-seat passengers. The measure has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee.

How They Voted

Here is how the Senate Transportation Committee voted Wednesday on SB 1282 (Safety belt systems; use by rear passengers):

01/16/19 — Senate: Passed by indefinitely in Transportation (6-Y 5-N)

YEAS — Carrico, Cosgrove, DeSteph, Chase, Suetterlein, Peake — 6.

NAYS — Deeds, Marsden, Favola, Edwards, McClellan — 5.

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