The proposal was simple.

Wary of mounting plastic in Virginia’s bays and waterways, a state senator from Roanoke wanted to allow localities to ban plastic bags. For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has known that fewer than 10% of plastic bags get recycled and that most wind up in the ocean, slowly becoming decomposing plastic that finds its way into fish and drinking water.

The senator, John Edwards, did not expect the pushback. In a committee meeting during the legislative session, five lobbyists came up to speak against the bill.

One, Mike Carlin, implored the committee to give recycling a chance.

“I believe that SB933 (Edwards’ bill) sends the wrong message to this industry, and is a deterrent to investment in our state, by banning plastic which can be recycled,” said Carlin, a lobbyist with the national Coalition for Consumer Choice.

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Similar showdowns take place several times a day during Virginia’s legislative session. Despite the developing climate crisis, bills designed to curb pollution and emissions find fierce opposition in the growing, well-financed lobbies that have put down deep roots in the commonwealth.

Sometimes, the lobbyists represent companies that outwardly market themselves to customers as environmentally friendly.

This session, legislators proposed a number of ideas to make Virginia more green and to make it safer from harmful chemicals.

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, proposed a bill to ban the use of coal tar sealants — the thick, black goop used to coat asphalt on driveways and parking lots.

The sealants contain toxic compounds — polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs — that leak into the environment over time and have been found in Virginia’s waterways, according to reporting from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Capital News Service.

Del. Nadarius Clark, D-Portsmouth, proposed a bill to study whether Virginia’s highly active plastics industry was shedding “microplastics” into the state’s drinking water.

Another bill proposed by Edwards would have required water companies to tell the public when their drinking water was found to have problematic levels of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, the “forever chemicals” that have been shown to harm humans and especially children.

The bill was supported and presented by Chris Pomeroy, legal counsel for the Virginia Municipal Drinking Water Association.

One lobbyist spoke in support. “This is just asking for a community’s right to know if their water’s safe,” said Pat Calvert with the Virginia Conservation Network.

Carlin spoke against the bill, this time on behalf of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, another prominent industry lobby.

He was joined by a representative from the American Chemistry Council, who said that telling Virginians when “forever chemicals” were found in their drinking water would cause “undue alarm.”

The bill was tabled by the committee, which means it was killed. The votes to squelch the bill came from Dels. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier; Chris Runion, R-Rockingham; Rob Bloxom, R-Accomack; Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham; and Buddy Fowler, R-Hanover. All received A ratings from Carlin’s organization.

Tran’s sealant legislation also failed, as did Clark’s bill to study plastics.

Carlin did not reply to several requests for comment, nor did Brett Vassey, president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association.

Unsurprisingly, money is the big differentiator between the environmental and industrial lobbies. Most of the former are nonprofits, for which it is illegal to make political donations.

Trade groups, law firms and big Virginia companies like Dominion Energy have no such restrictions. All give freely to Democrats and Republicans alike, although donation data from the Virginia Public Access Project shows that Republicans benefit far more from industry-aligned lobbying groups.

For example, the Virginia Retail Federation, a lobby that represents Virginia small businesses, moved over $50,000 in campaign donations in 2022. The group gave mostly to Republicans.

“They’re lobbying year-round for their priorities, which is frustrating because we in the environmental space don’t have those kinds of resources,” said Connor Kish, legislative director with the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

Plastic breaking down into tiny particles that float like dust in the air

A short legislative session sharpens the point. Industries can simply hire more lobbyists than environmental groups, outgunning them in a game defined by time and access.

In the most recent legislative session, 1,030 lobbyists had registered with the state’s ethics board. The number ticks higher every year.

Lobbyists in the Virginia legislature

Meanwhile, lobbyists are also writing their own legislation to beat back bans from environmentalists.

In 2022, Washington Gas pushed a bill that would ban Virginia localities from zoning buildings without natural gas hookups. Natural gas primarily is composed of methane, which accounts for about 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

The bill came through Terry Kilgore, a Republican in the House of Delegates whose campaign has received $22,000 from Washington Gas across his 30-year political career. VPAP data shows the largest donation — a $6,000 check — came the year he put the bill forward.

In a statement shared by his office, Kilgore said, “The impetus for filing House Bill 1257 was to preserve fuel choice and ensure a family’s gas stove cannot be taken away.”

A version of Kilgore’s bill ultimately passed after it was reworked last August in a special session.

“Lobbyists have a tremendous influence in this place,” said Edwards, the Roanoke senator who sponsored the plastics and PFAS bills. “The General Assembly is free to make their own decision, but they’re heavily influenced.”

Edwards’ plastics bill was nixed by lobbyists from the Virginia Retail Federation. The lobby represents small and large businesses across the state, including Dominion, Home Depot and Target — companies that market their environmental responsibility to their customers.

It was also opposed by the Virginia Food Industry Association, which is funded by donations from such grocers as Publix and Wegmans. Publix actively tracks the number of plastic bags it saves on its website. Wegmans committed to eliminating plastic bags in its Virginia stores last summer. 

Melissa Assalone, director of the Virginia Food Industry Association, did not return a request for comment on the lobby’s position against the bill.

Ultimately, Edwards’ bill did not pass either, as it apparently failed to persuade key Democrats on the committee, including Lynwood Lewis, the committee chair.

Lewis represents Accomack and Northampton counties on the state’s Eastern Shore. In his 18-year legislative career, he has received $10,000 in campaign donations from Troutman Pepper, another of the five lobbying firms that initially pushed against the plastics legislation. He also received $6,250 in campaign donations from the Virginia Retail Federation.

Lewis voted “nay” on the bill.

Luca Powell (804) 649-6103

@luca_a_powell on Twitter

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