Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury

While most of the inaugural meeting of Gov. Ralph Northam’s newly reconstituted Council on Environmental Justice flowed smoothly, one moment during the day revealed that tensions still linger from the last iteration of the body.

After more than half a dozen residents of Cumberland and Powhatan counties turned out to plead for help in their fight against a mega-landfill proposed by private waste management company County Waste, the council sought for an action it could take. Opponents complained that they had been unable to get key questions answered about the project, which was approved by the Cumberland Board of Supervisors only 35 days after it was presented to the public, and that the approval process was flawed.

As council members struggled to word a motion recommending that state officials reach out to affected communities, Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources Josh Saks sternly told them: “Your powers are to encourage us, not to order us.”

Council member Nathan Burrell swiftly replied that the council would “strongly recommend” that the administration communicate with Cumberland residents.

The sharp exchange highlighted both the ambitions of the advisory council and the limitations it faces in spurring real change in the state’s permitting practices.

Earlier in the day, the Rev. Faith B. Harris, a member of the council, encouraged colleagues to “double down” in addressing environmental justice issues.

“It can’t be business as usual,” said Harris, who is also the chair of Virginia Interfaith Power and Light, an advocacy group coordinating a religious response to climate change. “We need to think boldly.”

The Friday meeting marked the reconvening of a body first established by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2017 to serve as “a sustained conduit for recommendations on environmental justice,” a concept defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”

More simply, environmental justice is a response to consistent findings since the late 1970s that minority and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by environmental problems like water and air pollution.

The first version of the council grappled with issues of equity related to such issues as sea level rise and the siting of natural gas infrastructure near minority communities. The group recommended that the state revoke water quality permits for the highly contested Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines and suspend its permitting decision on the Buckingham compressor station planned for the historic black community of Union Hill.

However, as an advisory group, the council has no enforcement powers, and its decisions are not binding. With no compulsion to accept the group’s recommendations, Northam’s administration chose not to revoke or suspend any of the permits in question. The administration also drew the wrath of environmental groups by pulling two members from the State Air Pollution Control Board as it weighed a permit for the Buckingham compressor station, part of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

In January, one month after the council submitted its final report to the governor, Northam issued Executive Order 29 creating the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice. Under Virginia code, commissions created by executive order cannot exceed one year, although their term may be extended for one additional year by issuance of a new executive order.

Six of the 16 members of the reconstituted council also participated in its previous 14-member group and hearkened back to its unfinished business.

“Things take time, but I’m a little bit disappointed Gov. Northam hasn’t responded yet, officially, to my knowledge, to our report,” said Mike Ellerbrock, a Catholic priest, Virginia Tech professor and member of the prior council. “Particularly with regard to the compressor station in Union Hill. There’s pros and cons, but the people don’t want it, period. They don’t want it.”

In response, Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler said that he had spoken with Northam “multiple times” about the report and that some of its recommendations were beginning to be integrated into the administration’s work.

“I certainly don’t want the fact that the governor did not have a face-to-face meeting at the end of the last council’s lifespan to detract from the fact that we are together doing a lot of very good work here,” Strickler said.

Besides its action on the landfill, the body also began to form subcommittees, which will determine priority areas. In addition to focusing on outdoor access, resilience and climate change, public health, transportation and clean energy, areas highlighted by Northam in his executive order, the council also established a committee dealing with environmental justice as it relates to the state’s policies, permits, programs and procedures.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah is originally from McLean and has spent over a decade in the fields of journalism and academic publishing. Most recently she covered environmental issues in Central Virginia for Chesapeake Bay Journal; prior to that, she worked at the Progress-Index in Petersburg and the Caroline Progress in Caroline County, as well as writing for multiple regional publications. In 2017, she was honored as one of Gatehouse’s Feature Writers of the Year, and she has been the recipient of numerous awards from the Virginia Press Association. She is a graduate of the College of William & Mary.