When Will Virginia End “Passive Resistance”?

In the 1950’s, Virginia tried to block implementation of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision (requiring school desegregation) through a program of Massive Resistance.   Senator Byrd, state officials, and an influential newspaper editor in Richmond claimed Virginia could “interpose” its state authority and maintain separate-but-equal school systems, along with other laws requiring segregation by race.

The legal defense for separate schools collapsed in just a few years, and Virginia schools started to comply with the court order in 1959.  Practically, some Virginia school systems managed to delay substantial desegregation for another 15 years.  Desegregation occurred with all deliberate speed, and the issues with schools and racism in society have not disappeared – but the Jim Crow system in Virginia was transformed within 20 years.

It’s taking far longer to comply with the Clean Water Act. Virginia’s “passive resistance” to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay has stretched out 27 years so far, longer than it took to desegregate the schools.  The EPA is now asking for a long-term Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP), granting states another 15 years to phase in all action items by 2025.

Will the latest governor perpetuate the passive resistance approach?  Will Virginia produce a final Watershed Implementation Plan based on “the Federal government must borrow more money and send it to Virginia, before we will fix the pollution problem that we created” approach?

Maybe – but Virginia learned in 1861-65 and again in the 1950’s-70’s that Federal laws are not optional.  Virginia can comply with the Clean Water Act, or Federal agencies will implement “backstop” actions that do the job.

The problems with water pollution have been recognized for decades.  Governor Robb signed the Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 1983.  Virginia signed another Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 1987 with specific objectives for reducing pollutants.

In 1992, Virginia and other states committed to a “tributary strategy,” recognizing that the best way to clean up the bay was to reduce excessive pollution in the streams flowing into the bay.  (After all – what is the alternative?  No wastewater treatment plant could process the polluted water once it reached the bay…)  Yet another set of paper promises were included in the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement.

Still, by 2010 Virginia and other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed were far short.  Despite significant progress since 1983, excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous continue to flow into the bay.  Virginia still sends 23% too much nitrogen and 32% too much phosphorous downstream, stimulating “dead zones” in the bay where lack of oxygen kills all life.

The easy projects have been completed in the last 27 years.  What remains to be done are mostly expensive and politically-difficult actions.  Virginia demonstrated that it can do what is necessary and dismantle the Jim Crow system of segregation.  Will the state’s politicians find a way to change our patterns of pollution – or will they abdicate their responsibility to reduce Virginia-generated pollution, and invite Federal agencies to impose strict controls on Virginia municipalities and industries?

We’ll know after November 29, when Virginia submits its final Watershed Implementation Plan to EPA.

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