© 2024 WHRO Public Media
5200 Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk VA 23508
757.889.9400 | info@whro.org
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

More trees, less invasive plants: Here’s what environmental legislation made it through Virginia’s General Assembly

Trees at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Suffolk. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)
Trees at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Suffolk. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)

Virginia legislators have adjourned this year’s General Assembly session, sending more than 1,000 approved bills to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk to sign.

Those include many that would change the way Virginians interact with and impact the environment. 

Early in the session, Democrats defeated attempts by Republicans to roll back clean energy standards passed under Gov. Ralph Northam, including new clean car standards that recently took effect.

Many environmental bills introduced by Democrats were also voted down, such as additional wetlands protections, a rural electric vehicle infrastructure program and a proposed moratorium on all fossil fuel projects

Here is some of what did make it through, though legislation still needs to be signed by Youngkin, who is sure to wield his veto power.


  • Re-entering RGGI: One of the biggest-ticket items in the budget is an amendment that requires the state to return to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The carbon market makes fossil fuel producers of a certain size purchase credits for their carbon emissions, and has brought in more than $800 million in auction proceeds for Virginia. Virginia lawmakers voted to enter RGGI in 2020, but state regulators under Youngkin voted last year to leave the market. An ongoing lawsuit challenges the removal
  • Invasive species: A new bill prohibits Virginia stores from selling invasive plants for outdoor use unless the plants are accompanied by prominent signage educating consumers about the negative effects of invasive species. Stores would be subject to a penalty of up to $500.
  • Trees: Several pieces of legislation expand local governments’ authority to require conserving or replacing trees during the development process. Another bill directs the state to develop a forest conservation plan.
  • Toxins in the water: One bill – pushed by environmentalists for years – prohibits the sale or distribution of pavement sealants that contain certain carcinogens called PAHs, which can run off into local waterways and harm wildlife. Scientists have documented links between PAHs and cancer in fish in the Elizabeth River. Other places in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including Maryland and Washington D.C., already have bans in place. A separate new bill in Virginia requires more monitoring of harmful “forever chemicals,” known as PFAS, in all public water systems.  
  • Strengthening resilience and equity: Legislators passed a bill that strengthens the role of a Chief Resilience Officer in Virginia. The officer will coordinate resilience efforts across state agencies and local governments to maximize funding opportunities and prioritize natural solutions like living shorelines. The law also gives the resilience officer the authority to serve as a sponsor on projects with the federal Army Corps of Engineers – such as Norfolk’s floodwall. Another bill makes sure that a state flood protection loan fund will prioritize projects in low-income communities. 
  • Climate funding: One bill creates a Virginia Clean Energy Innovation Bank with $10 million to finance climate initiatives across Virginia, such as clean energy and greenhouse gas reduction projects. 
  • Abandoned and derelict vessels: Virginia has an issue with abandoned boats clogging local waterways, and in recent years officials have spent time investigating the problem, which includes confusion over who is legally allowed to remove the vessels. A new bill will simplify localities’ ability to get state approval to remove and destroy abandoned boats in their waters. 
  • Recycling: Lawmakers voted to establish a Virginia Recycling Development Fund to boost opportunities for the recycling market.
  • Electric vehicles: One bill directs the state Commission on Electric Utility Regulation to assess what infrastructure is necessary for installing EV charging stations in new single-family or multifamily homes. 
  • Energy efficiency: A new Local Environmental Impact Fund will be created to give grants to residents or locally-owned businesses to cut energy use by replacing landscaping, HVAC or appliance equipment with energy-efficient kinds. The legislature will also now require the state energy department to help localities implement mandates on energy and resilience standards when constructing or renovating certain public buildings. 
  • Geothermal energy: One bill makes geothermal energy systems – heat pulled from the earth through underground water or steam — compliant with renewable energy requirements for utilities. It also creates a work group to study using geothermal heating and cooling systems in Virginia.
  • Styrofoam ban: Through a budget amendment, lawmakers have moved up a ban on Styrofoam containers at large chain restaurants from 2028 to 2025. Smaller restaurants will have until 2026.
  • Elizabeth River restoration: The General Assembly appropriated $3.7 million toward a federal Army Corps environmental restoration project at Chesapeake’s Money Point, where officials have been working to restore the ecosystem heavily impacted by past industry.
  • Water quality: The budget allocates $20 million to create a pilot program in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that could compensate certain entities for investing in pollution reduction measures. The pay-for-outcomes program would ensure the measures lead to actual water quality improvements.
  • Flooding at Jamestown: A budget amendment provides $1.5 million for Preservation Virginia and the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation to support studying, designing, permitting and doing archaeology needed to build flood protection at Jamestown. The site is highly susceptible to sea level rise and foundation officials previously launched a campaign to save it from going underwater.

Pushed to 2025: 

  • Flood risk disclosure: Environmental groups were pushing a bill that would have required home sellers and landlords in VIrginia to disclose a lot more about a property’s flood risk. It was introduced by Norfolk Democratic Del. Phil Hernandez, who told WHRO it’s a "commonsense bill to help families better understand flood risks before they make one of the largest investments of their lives." 
  • Menhaden: One bill would have funded an in-depth study of menhaden fish in the Chesapeake Bay. The study is the latest front in conservation and recreational fishing groups’ long fight against industrial menhaden fishing in the bay. The delay – made without discussion – frustrated advocates who participated in a series of stakeholders meetings last summer to develop a consensus plan.
  • Offshore wind: A Republican lawmaker proposed capping Dominion Energy’s ability to charge customers for costs related to offshore wind leasing. A Democratic lawmaker sought to create a competitive procurement process for offshore wind energy in Virginia – allowing someone other than Dominion to contribute to the state’s supply.
  • Environmental impacts of data centers: Data centers – home to large computers, storage and hardware systems – are on the rise in Virginia and use massive amounts of energy for operations and temperature control. Lawmakers proposed several ways to attack the issue, including requiring that energy come mostly from renewables and linking tax exemptions to energy efficiency measures. The proposals were delayed a year while the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission reviews the overall impacts of the data center industry.
  • Methane capture: A proposed bill would have created a pilot program for capturing methane from coal mines and repurposing it as electricity on the grid.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the General Assembly had allocated $15 million for the city of Virginia Beach to build a Flood Protection Center. This amendment was taken out of the budget before it was approved.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

The world changes fast.

Keep up with daily local news from WHRO. Get local news every weekday in your inbox.

Sign-up here.