An environmental group said today that it has reached an agreement with the Virginia Water Control Board that will lead to stronger enforcement of federal water standards designed to reduce damaging pollution discharges in the state.
Citing improved compliance with the federal Clean Water Act by the water board, the Environmental Defense Fund, a private group, said it has agreed to drop a complaint it filed two years ago with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A sharp reduction by the state board in the backlog of permit applications from major industries and municipalities that discharge pollutants into the state's rivers and streams was a key factor in the environmental group's decision.
David S. Bailey, an attorney and biologist for the fund, said the agreement is "an important step toward implementing the goals of the Clean Water Act. It will help bring Virginia into compliance with federal law, while preventing a repetition of past abuses."
Karen Laserson, an assistant state attorney general who is counsel to the water control board, said the stepped-up permit process "theoretically" means that the state's waters are cleaner, and "should have an impact" on the massive Chesapeake Bay cleanup project.
Laserson said the state "had begun expediting its permitting process several months before" the complaint was dropped. "We're doing quite well now," she said, "better than many states." Permits must be renewed every five years, and with each renewal the standards become more rigid, she said.
The Environmental Defense Fund's complaint, filed in August 1984 as a preliminary step to a lawsuit, alleged there had been "a nearly total breakdown" in the issuance and renewal of permits by the state board. Almost 70 percent of the major industrial dischargers and 36 percent of municipalities were operating with permits that had expired, the fund said. Those figures have been reduced to 15 to 20 percent, Bailey said today.
Truman Temple, a public affairs officer for EPA in Washington, said the fund asked EPA to withdraw Virginia's authority to administer the national pollution discharge elimination system permit program for the federal government. Since then, Temple said, Virginia has made considerable progress.
After prolonged negotiations, agreement was reached not only on how to correct Virginia's program, but to set national standards for states to implement the Clean Water Act.
Thus the agreement "has implications beyond Virginia's boundaries," Bailey said, "because it will lead to the development of proper performance criteria" for all 36 states to which EPA has delegated authority.
In addition to setting a timetable for issuing and renewing permits, the Virginia agency agreed to take prompt enforcement action, which the fund said had been lax, and secured an attorney general's ruling that makes it easier for the state to fully implement the program.
"This agreement achieves the goals of EDF's petition . . . while avoiding lengthy hearings" over whether the state agency's authority should be withdrawn, said defense fund attorney Robert V. Percival.