In the wake of the toxic chemical spill that contaminated water supplies in West Virginia, a new report by an environmental law expert at the University of Richmond School of Law calls for major reforms in Virginia’s regulation of toxic chemicals.

“A Strategy to Protect Virginians from Toxic Chemicals,” written by Noah Sachs, professor of law and director of the Merhige Center for Environmental Studies, and law student Ryan Murphy, is the first comprehensive study of chemical dangers in the state. It concludes that Virginia ranks high nationally on toxic chemical releases to the environment and that Virginia regulators are not adequately responding to the danger.

“Virginia has a self-image as a pristine, primarily agricultural state,” said Sachs, “but we found that Virginians are subjected to a wide variety of risks from industrial chemicals. The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a wake-up call for the Commonwealth to address the toxic threats in our backyard.”

The report documents such risks as industrial releases of toxic chemicals, storage of millions of pounds of chemicals and toxic coal ash near waterways, dangers from contaminated sites that are not covered by the federal Superfund program, and toxic exposures from common consumer products.

It also identifies several hundred chemical storage sites across the state that pose potential hazards to public health, ranging from explosion and fire to chronic health effects in the event of leaks. It found more than 65 facilities that each store more than 1 million pounds of toxic substances (in comparison, about 100,000 pounds of chemicals leaked from the tanks in West Virginia). 

Sachs and Murphy identify many storage facilities located near major rivers, such as the South, Shenandoah and New rivers, and the headwaters of the James, containing more than 1 million pounds of toxic chemicals. They say highly corrosive sulfuric acid, toxic sodium chlorate, highly flammable isopropyl acetate and fuel oil are some of the chemicals stored. 

“Unfortunately, Virginia’s waters are just as threatened by toxic chemicals as those in West Virginia,” said Sachs.  “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, the report found:

  • Virginia’s waterways are the second worst in the nation, measured by the amount of toxic chemicals discharged into them.
  • More than 270 companies legally are permitted to discharge toxic chemicals into Virginia’s waterways. 
  • The federal government has identified eight coal ash disposal sites located along major Virginia rivers 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 36 other states.
  • The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has about 30 full-time employees 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 employees 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 that Virginia has in place are barebones and fragmented,” said Sachs. “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.”

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Related Campus Units

School of Law

Professor of Law
Director, Robert R. Merhige Jr. Center for Environmental Studies
Environmental Law and International Environmental Law
Toxic Substances and Hazardous Waste Regulation
Climate Change
Transboundary Pollution