General Assembly will decide whether to build environmental justice into Virginia law

By: - January 13, 2020 12:04 am
Green New Deal rally

Supporters of the Green New Deal rally in Capitol Square in Richmond on the first day of the 2020 General Assembly session. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Two years after Virginia established its first formal advisory body on environmental justice, legislators will weigh several bills proposing to weave the principle into the daily workings of state governance.

“Environmental justice isn’t just theoretical. It actually happens all the time,” said Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, who has put forward one bill making an advisory council on the issue permanent and directing all state agencies to develop policies to promote consideration of environmental justice in their regular operations. 

Case in point to the delegate: the State Air Pollution Control Board’s January 2019 issuance of a permit to build a controversial natural gas compressor station in the historic freedmen’s community of Union Hill in Buckingham County. That decision was struck down by a federal court Tuesday partly on environmental justice grounds.

“Clearly with the 4th Circuit decision we now know the state has to do a better job with environmental justice,” said Keam.

This session he and a handful of Democratic lawmakers including House Majority Leader Charniele Herring of Alexandria are championing efforts to make environmental justice a more systematic part of how agencies operate, permit and regulate activities within the commonwealth.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of environmental justice

“Environmental Justice is 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. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision‐making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

Gov. Ralph Northam, who in the wake of a blackface scandal last February pledged to commit the rest of his term to racial equity, has also publicly embraced the movement’s aims. 

He reconstituted Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s advisory council on the issue, although his administration’s decision to ignore the body’s recommendations on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, as well as his replacement of two air board members who expressed concern about the compressor station, drew fire from advocates. His proposed biennial budget earmarks almost $5.5 million over two years for environmental justice and outreach initiatives. And at his State of the Commonwealth speech before the General Assembly Jan. 8, he pledged his commitment to make permanent the advisory council, whose time is running out under state restrictions governing such bodies.

“This is about addressing community issues up front,” he said. “It’s about transparency in decision-making, when projects might affect a neighborhood, or historic lands.”

Making the advisory council a standing fixture that doesn’t have to have its authority renewed every year is key to ensuring “a permanent commitment to environmental justice in (state) code,” said Herring, who like Keam has proposed legislation to do so.

“As we begin to take responsibility for our environment … it’s important that we share the burden and that no person is disproportionately impacted,” she said.

Other legislation takes a broader approach. 

Two similar bills proposed by Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, would explicitly define one of the Department of Environmental Quality’s purposes as furthering environmental justice. The Virginia Environmental Justice Act being put forward by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, would direct all state agencies to assess the impact of any new regulation or policy on environmental justice and require all secretariats to develop plans to promote environmental justice. 

While part of a more sweeping measure, Roanoke Del. Sam Rasoul’s Green New Deal would put in place specific benchmarks for directing energy efficiency and clean energy funds to minority communities as well as targeting those groups in job programs and creating statewide and regional bodies on environmental justice priorities.

Kendyl Crawford, director of Virginia Interfaith Power and Light, an advocacy group that has been involved in the drafting of many of the environmental justice bills that the General Assembly will consider, said the focus on system-wide policy was important for effecting change.

“There’s a lot of environmental justice issues out there, and so there needs to be a paradigm shift, a change in the way our state works,” she said. “And so the idea behind that one was to incorporate environmental justice into the framework and to make sure environmental justice protections become a normal part of how our state functions.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. She previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress, and her work has been twice honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Institute and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]