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UR Law report: Virginia waterways rank second worst in toxic pollution

Published: February 4, 2014, 9:51 am ET
Collegian Reporter

Virginia ranks second-worst in the nation for toxic chemical pollution in the state’s waterways, according to a recently published report by the University of Richmond School of Law.

The report, titled “A Strategy to Protect Virginians from Toxic Chemicals,” was first published on the university’s website Jan. 15, 2014, under the Robert R. Merhige Jr. Center for Environmental Studies. It was written by Noah Sachs, professor of law and director of the Merhige Center, and Ryan Murphy, L ‘14.

One of the principal recommendations of the report was for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to “enact strict limits on toxic chemical releases” and to “enforce existing laws requiring reporting by facilities that store toxic chemicals,” according to the report’s executive summary. The first recommendation was for the Virginia General Assembly to increase funding and personnel at the DEQ.
The population can be exposed to toxic chemicals through land, water and air, but water pollution is a main concern in Virginia, Murphy said.

“The waterways are significant because we do have so much water here [in Virginia],” he said. “We have some very iconic rivers—the James, the York.”

Along with Virginia’s waterways overall being the second-worst in the nation after Indiana, the James River is also the ninth-worst waterway in the nation in terms of toxic pollution. The New River and the Roanoke River fall among the 20 worst waterways, being measured by “the amount of toxic chemicals discharged into them,” according to the report.

The requirements for reporting toxic chemicals are not concrete laws across the nation, Murphy said. He referenced the West Fertilizer Company explosion that occurred on April 17, 2013, in Texas. Before the explosion, West Fertilizer had not adequately reported the amount of ammonium nitrate, a potentially explosive fertilizer, it had on site to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to a Reuters report.

In this case, the reporting laws that tell first responders what chemicals are involved and what to expect were under-enforced, Murphy said. The explosion killed 15 people and injured more than 160, according to Reuters.

One goal of the report was to start a conversation about toxic chemical pollution, which Murphy said he felt was not discussed often enough in Virginia.

“We talk about the [Chesapeake] Bay,” he said. “We talk about controlling air pollutants, but we don’t necessarily talk about the broader toxics policy that is overarching.”

The report stemmed from a conference presentation Sachs gave over a year ago, he wrote in an email. He said he had decided to write a full report that identified the problems in the commonwealth and offered solutions.

Murphy has been happy with the attention the report has received, and he hopes to continue the discourse and keep drawing attention to the topic by publishing future editorials, he said. Having taken multiple classes in the Merhige Center for Environmental Studies, Murphy said he believed he would specialize in environmental law after graduation.

The reaction to the report has been very positive, Sachs said. He has been receiving emails and calls from people who want to get involved in the efforts to improve the state’s effectiveness when dealing with toxic chemicals.

Sachs is currently in India on a Fulbright fellowship. He is based at the National Law School in Bangalore and is researching Indian climate change and energy legislation.

Contact reporter Rebecca Wilson at

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