RICHMOND, Va. — A Virginia lawmaker says banning the release of helium balloons into the air could help save wildlife on land and in the water.
Balloons are fouling the state's beaches and can be deadly to wildlife, says Republican Sen. Jeff McWaters of Virginia Beach, who is sponsoring a bill to prohibit releasing lighter-than-air balloons into the atmosphere.
His bill would ban the intentional release of balloons inflated with helium or another lighter-than-air gas and require more than five minutes' contact with air or water to degrade.
Violations would carry a civil penalty of $5 per balloon, with proceeds going into the Litter Control and Recycling Fund.
The measure would supersede an existing law that bans release of 50 or more balloons in an hour.
McWaters' bill cleared the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee on a 9-6 vote Thursday and is headed to the full Senate.
Virginia is one of five states that restrict balloon releases, according to Clean Virginia Waterways, a nonprofit based at Longwood University in Farmville. Katie Register, executive director of the group, said that if McWaters' bill becomes law, it would be the toughest in the nation.
McWaters said he's not anti-balloon.
"We're just saying you can't have a purposeful release," he said. "We're trying to educate people. When you send something up, it's going to come down, and it's usually going to be in the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean."
Mark Swingle, director of research and conservation at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, called balloons an insidious form of litter that can travel great distances to remote stretches of Virginia's shoreline. A recent survey found as many as 150 balloons per mile of beach, he said.
Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, said sea turtles are especially vulnerable to deflated balloons because they mistake them for jellyfish. "They ingest them, and that's the end of them," he said.
In addition, Clark said, balloons are often attached to nylon or plastic strings that are slow to degrade, and birds get entangled in them.
"The bottom line is, these things get out there, and there's no good consequence."