Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

General Assembly considers large clean water investments

A river scene with tall buildings and a bridge in the background. In the foreground, people sit on rocks peeking over the water's surface
Crixell Matthews
VPM News
People sit on rocks in the James River near downtown Richmond. Gov. Glenn Youngkin asked state lawmakers to set aside $100 million to improve the city's combined sewer system.

The General Assembly is considering a wide range of energy and environment bills this year. From newfound and vigorous support for nuclear energy research and development to hundreds of millions of dollars in clean water funding, here are some top line items that legislators hope will pass — or at least make an impression on voters.

Clean water funding

In his proposed amendments to the state budget, Gov. Glenn Youngkin seeks to continue the trend of spending nine-digit sums on clean water programs. Wastewater treatment facilities around the state will receive $237 million for improvements if the General Assembly agrees with Youngkin’s amendments.

Those facilities are key to filtering out the nitrogen and phosphorous found in municipal waste, two pollutants that can lead to algae blooms. Those blooms can choke out aquatic life and release harmful chemicals into public water bodies — and are largely responsible for the Chesapeake Bay’s yearly “dead zone.”

About 60% of the state’s landmass is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: all of the water that flows into eastern Virginia’s four major rivers (the James, Potomac, Rappahannock and York), and everything in that water, eventually makes it to the bay.

Youngkin requested lawmakers set aside $100 million for the city of Richmond to continue separating its combined sewer system, which handles street runoff and sewage together. The current system overflows into the (often recreated-in) James River after less than a half-hour of heavy rain, essentially dumping a deluge of waste into the water. In 2021, Mayor Levar Stoney said the system would cost nearly $900 million to fix.

The governor also proposed $137 million to reduce runoff from perhaps the largest source of water pollution in the state: agriculture. The Agricultural Cost Share Program offers grants to Virginia farmers for installing a range of best management practices. Those include riparian buffers — stream-side areas with thick vegetation — or something as simple as fencing to keep cows and other livestock (and their waste) out of nearby waters.

Peggy Sanner, director for the Virginia chapter of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a statement that she was glad to see the proposals.

“While important progress has been made to date in [cleanup programs], inflation is increasing the costs of Bay restoration programs, and climate change and population growth are adding new challenges to reducing pollution in the region,” Sanner said.

Energy innovation research

Youngkin has also vocally backed efforts to support and invest in energy research and development, particularly in Southwest Virginia. In October 2022, he announced a $10 million budget proposal to kickstart that work — half of which would be dedicated to establishing the Virginia Nuclear Innovation Hub.

There are a handful of bills that would support this effort and research into technologies like hydrogen energy, as well as carbon capture and storage. One would make it the “policy of the Commonwealth to promote the development and operation of small modular nuclear reactors” by 2032. Small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs, are built at a smaller scale than traditional reactors and can be shipped to nuclear plants for use. They’re also very new: the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved an SMR design for the first time last week.

Another would create the Nuclear Education Grant Fund and Program, which would offer grants to public and private universities with nuclear engineering degrees.

Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County) has a bill that would allow the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority to promote the use and development of coal mine methane, as well as pumped storage, battery storage, hydrogen power, and wind and solar, among other technologies. The SWVERDA would also have the power to push for energy development on formerly mined lands.

Hackworth’s bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources committee.

Opponents say that while energy sources like nuclear are low-carbon, they’re also expensive to develop and would likely increase monthly electric bills. They argue the focus should be on developing wind, solar and battery storage.


Lawmakers are considering a wide range of bills on renewables, including some seeking to keep the cost for consumers down.

Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-Loudoun County) is sponsoring one bill that would direct the Commission on School Construction and Modernization to connect schools with grant funding for installing renewable energy facilities.

“We have a chance right now to future-proof these schools from an energy perspective,” Subramanyam said.

He’s also sponsored a measure that would require the State Corporation Commission to keep regular tabs on the development of Dominion’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project. Subramanyam said he hopes that would help the commission gather data and determine if ratepayers are getting their money’s worth from the multi-billion-dollar project.

Other measures seek to redefine what is considered “renewable” in state law.

Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Lee County) is the sponsor of two such measures, one of which would allow utilities to count nuclear and hydrogen energy toward their renewable generation requirements under the Virginia Electric Utility Regulation Act. Nuclear energy is limited by a finite global supply of Uranium, however, and hydrogen power can come from renewable or non-renewable sources.

Another would define the methane that escapes from coal mines as a renewable source. Methane — a greenhouse gas that is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term — is produced along with coal and locked into seams. When a mine is opened, that gas is gradually released into the atmosphere.

Proponents of the bill say burning methane as fuel (converting it into CO2) puts less burden on atmospheric conditions.

“The goal here for those already-mined coal seams is to vacuum out that methane, process it, put it in existing pipelines ... for industrial use and possibly for home heating,” said Preston Bryant, a lobbyist representing natural gas company CNX Resources. Bryant was speaking in support of Hackworth’s wide-ranging SWVERDA bill.

Environmental advocates say methane is not what the state should be pursuing. Blair St. Ledger-Olson, legislative director of advocacy nonprofit Climate Cabinet, said there is federal money coming to Virginia that could help the state seal leaky mines instead.

“We shouldn’t be propping these mines up," St. Ledger-Olson. "We should be closing them down."

If the state creates a market for coal mine methane, she said, that could prolong negative impacts to health and water supplies associated with retired mines.

Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Youngkin has made clear his desire to remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate pact to reduce carbon emissions, since the campaign trail. He’s described the program as a carbon tax: Big electric companies like Dominion Energy purchase carbon allowances and then pass that cost onto the ratepayers. And he’s said the program won’t reduce emissions because regardless of the initiative, large power operators are already required under state law to shift their generating fleet to 100% renewables by 2050.

There is a measure to repeal the law that enabled the Air Pollution Control Board to complete Virginia’s enrollment in RGGI, but it’s not expected to survive the Democrat-controlled state Senate. The Youngkin administration began the process of leaving the pact through regulatory action, but RGGI supporters say the pollution control board doesn’t have that power. They say a full repeal of the law is necessary.

Supporters say the program incentivizes power companies to make the shift to low-carbon sources more quickly in order to remain market competitive — and say it’s already been effective.

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said RGGI is needed to cover state programs to mitigate climate change effects.

“I don’t know how [Youngkin] intends to pay for anything if we don’t start taxing the things that are ruining our environment,” Surovell said at a Jan. 13 press conference on capitol grounds. “We gotta start putting a cost on climate change, that’s what causes people to change their behavior.”

The proceeds from carbon allowances sold at RGGI auctions — $523 million since joining the market in 2021 — directly fund two major climate change-focused programs in Virginia.

Half of the cash goes to a range of energy efficiency upgrades, mostly targeted at reducing electric bills for low-income Virginians. The state’s demand for electricity is increasing. That electricity has to come from somewhere, whether or not the source is carbon-free.

By investing in efficiency measures, the state hopes to put less strain on the grid while transitioning to renewable sources. They also hope the fund will help ratepayers save on their monthly electric bill.

Another 45% of the proceeds fund grants that go toward flood resilience projects statewide. Most of the spending has been focused on coastal areas, but localities around the state are using the cash to adapt to increasingly torrential downpours.

The state set up an alternative last year, the Resilient Virginia Revolving Loan Fund, which Youngkin has proposed adding $200 million to this year. The support from that fund comes in the form of loans, hence the “revolving.” The idea is that as loans are paid off, the fund will automatically replenish itself to go towards future projects elsewhere in the state.

This story is powered by the 2023 People's Agenda.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.