HARRISONBURG — A bill sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, that would strip the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation of several responsibilities passed the House of Delegates on Friday.
The bill and its House counterpart would transfer various programs from DCR to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, although they differ on the number of programs.
Both the Senate legislation and the House version, which is sponsored by Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, would transfer stormwater regulation and water quality management programs, including those designed to clean up local streams, to DEQ.
Unlike Sherwood’s bill, however, Hanger’s version included a piece that would switch the state’s soil and water conservation districts and nutrient management plans from the conservation department to environmental quality.
Hanger’s bill was amended in the House to keep those programs under DCR, while Sherwood’s bill was amended in the Senate to send them to DEQ.
Hobey Bauhan of the Harrisonburg-based Virginia Poultry Federation said that’s the only aspect of the legislation that’s still up in the air.
“It appears to me that the only question at this point is whether those programs will stay at DCR or go to DEQ,” he said. “The larger bill appears likely to pass.”
The federation is in support of Hanger’s original version, which would move all the aforementioned powers to the environmental quality department.
“We just feel that … it would be more efficient and effective and better for the farmers and other businesses that interact with these agencies,” Bauhan said.
Virginia poultry growers who have more than 11,000 turkeys or 20,000 chickens must now have a DCR-approved nutrient management plan before obtaining a required permit from DEQ. Hanger’s bill would streamline that process by requiring farmers to go through only one department.
Hanger’s bill passed the House 75-21 Friday, while the Senate approved Sherwood’s amended version 39-0 on Monday. A conference committee of members from both chambers must resolve any differences between the two versions before the final legislation can be brought to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s desk.
Some believe the bill will result in more government regulation, but that’s just a misunderstanding, Hanger says.
“There’s nothing new, but it’s all showing up in the bill in italicized language,” he explained. “Some groups … thought all that language was new, a whole big pile of new environmental regulations.”
DEQ Director David Paylor echoed that sentiment.
“One of the key misconceptions that we’re hearing about this bill is some belief that this creates some new powers and authorities for DEQ,” Paylor said. “There is absolutely no addition of new powers or authorities to the code; it is simply moving existing responsibilities from DCR to DEQ.”
The bill was crafted in response to a report from McDonnell’s Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring, which found that moving certain programs from one department to the other would be more efficient.
If the legislation passes, about 120 positions will be moved from the conservation department to environmental quality, with about half moving on the regional, or non-Richmond, level, Paylor said.
He’s not sure how it will affect the Valley Regional Office in regard to employee numbers.
The bill doesn’t call for any layoffs, Hanger said.
“I think our most immediate organizational challenge will be to ensure that our constituents understand what our final organizational structures look like, so when our constituents need us, they know who to call,” said Amy Owens, director of DEQ’s Harrisonburg office.