Six senators vote against Northam’s pick to lead environmental agency

January 22, 2019 5:02 am

Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam disappointed some members of his transition team and left environmental groups seething last year when he reappointed David Paylor to his longtime job as director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Business interests, including the state’s big utilities, chief among them Dominion Energy, like Paylor’s light touch with the regulatory powers his office wields. Conservationists loath his agency’s deference to polluters, from the utilities to poultry farms and industrial emitters.

On Monday, that debate spilled onto the Senate floor.

Six senators, three Republicans and three Democrats, cast a vote to pull Paylor’s reappointment out of a list of gubernatorial appointments for Senate confirmation. Sen David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, led the unsuccessful charge. As is customary in the Senate, though, there was no mention of Paylor’s name or floor debate on the appointment.

“The governor is entitled to his appointments and I have voted to confirm every other appointment,” Suetterlein said in a statement to the Mercury. “Unfortunately, I could not vote to confirm the head of DEQ because his relationship with the utilities and his actions have greatly diminished Virginians’ confidence.”

Joining him were Sens. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield; Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria; Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William; Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax; and Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond.

Paylor’s agency has been the lightning rod at the center of controversial state regulatory board votes on the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines and he has faced major criticism in the past for accepting a trip to the Masters golf tournament on Dominion’s dime. The agency has also been blasted for its handling of permits that would allow Dominion to close coal ash ponds at four sites across the state.

And lately, activists have been calling attention to his reappointment vote. Expect more fireworks from them when the House has to vote on the appointment.

In an op-ed last week, former State Water Control Board member Roberta Kellam said Paylor accused her of “working for the opposition” when she raised concerns about the damage to waterways construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline is wreaking in southwest Virginia despite DEQ’s prior assurances that the agency had conducted a regulatory review that was “the most rigorous for any pipeline previously constructed in Virginia.”

Who does Paylor think he’s working for? If history is a guide, he likely sees his job as pushing permits for pollution through what can be skeptical citizen boards.  As a former state delegate told me last year, this isn’t totally Paylor’s fault, given the history of budget cuts and regulatory shackles imposed by the General Assembly.

“Despite my personal affinity for David, the perception is that if police treated drivers the same way DEQ treats polluters, they’d write ‘pretty please’ on speed-limit signs and hand people doughnuts when they got pulled over,” said Albert Pollard, the former state delegate who now works in environmental consulting.

But given the increasing scrutiny of powerful interests like Dominion and the role they play in policy setting, the winds may be shifting here in Richmond, and Paylor, long-credited with being a deft political survivor, might want to check which way they’re blowing.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]