Opponents of a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County protested at a State Air Pollution Control Board meeting in December by standing and turning their backs during a Department of Environmental Quality presentation. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Dec. 19, 2018)

After a vote on what had become Virginia’s most high-profile environmental justice issue — the contentious natural gas compressor station proposed for Buckingham County by Dominion Energy as part of its Atlantic Coast Pipeline  — Gov. Ralph Northam is reconstituting an advisory council that urged him last year to halt the project.

The former members of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice were invited to apply to serve on the new body, called the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, in an email from Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler. A spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality says the old council’s legal authority had “expired,” which is consistent with what council members had heard from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office.

“I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to you and all members of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice for your service over the past year. I am pleased to report that the governor has acted on a key recommendation from your report to continue his commitment to environmental justice through the issuance of Executive Order 29 – establishing a new Virginia Council on Environmental Justice,” Strickler wrote.

The new council will “build on your work by recommending a long-term framework to guide environmental justice decision-making and ensure environmental justice concerns are integrated across state programs, policies, permits and procedures,” Strickler said.

The old advisory council was created in the waning days of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration and at times struggled to organize itself after running out of grant funding that paid UVA’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation to facilitate its meetings and set priorities. Eventually, Strickler’s office took over staffing the council, bringing it up to speed with the Freedom of Information Act and open-meetings training.

“We weren’t given the support and training that would have helped make that a seamless transition and it wasn’t always clear what was expected of us,” said Mary Finley-Brook, a University of Richmond geography and environment professor and a member of the first incarnation of the council.

The executive order creating a new council came as a surprise, she said.

“We had plans to continue working and we hadn’t been told ‘This is on hold,'” she said, adding that the council was planning hearings in Hampton Roads and southwest Virginia in the coming months.

In late August, the council urged revocation of water quality permits for the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipeline projects; suspending the air permit decision for the compressor station and creating an emergency task force “to assess evidence of disproportionate impacts for people of color and for low-income populations due to gas infrastructure expansion.” The governor ignored those recommendations.

And the state Department of Environmental Quality largely brushed off concerns about environmental justice — the notion that poor people and marginalized racial groups should not bear disproportionate effects from pollution — as it pushed the air board to approve a permit for the compressor station.

That divisive permit vote became even more bitterly contested after Northam yanked two members off the board who had expressed concerns about the siting of the station in Union Hill, a largely African-American community founded by freedmen. One of those former members, Rebecca Rubin, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post calling the compressor vote a test of “whether the commonwealth’s stated commitment to environmental justice should be taken seriously.”

“The problem with DEQ and Buckingham and the Union Hill compressor station was they thought they knew better than the air board, they thought they knew better than the advisory council and they thought they knew better than the environmental justice community,” Finley-Brook said.

“There were so many instances where DEQ took input from the community and said ‘That’s irrelevant to our technical process.’”

Still, Finley-Brook sees promise in the new body and intends to apply, though she says the new council should include designated representation from grass-roots or faith-based environmental justice groups.

“A significant portion of council members should come from historically marginalized groups and this criteria should be defined and carved out in Executive Order 29 creating the new environmental justice council,” she said.

Advocates will be watching, and it sounds like it might take more than Northam’s executive order to convince them he’s serious about environmental justice.

“Re-establishing the council is one step towards making the commonwealth a more environmentally just place,” said Kendyl Crawford of the nonprofit climate advocacy group Virginia Interfaith Power & Light.

“The recent treatment of environmental justice communities has made it clear that we have a long way to go. Environmental justice has been ignored in Virginia for too long, and the leadership of many elected officials on this issue has been woefully inadequate.”

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent 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. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.