The sun sets over the James River in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By David K. Paylor

In the face of the greatest public health crisis in decades, we are more aware than ever of the connection between environmental protection, public and individual health and a strong economy. As we enter a new decade of environmentalism, it is worth reflecting on how far we have come so we can move forward with confidence and commitment to address new and urgent challenges. 

This week, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. This movement started in 1970, when 20 million people gathered in the streets of America to encourage our leaders to rise to the challenge of protecting the environment. From the decimation of our bald eagle population from DDT use to contaminated rivers catching fire, the evidence was painfully clear that we were not adequately aware of our impact on the environment, and its importance to human health. Out of this new awareness, a movement was born.

The 1970s saw the passage of the most comprehensive environmental legislation in U.S. history, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. In addition, just months after the first Earth Day, a new federal organization tasked with monitoring the nation’s natural assets – the Environmental Protection Agency – was created.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is the environmental agency in the commonwealth, safeguarding the places we live and promoting the health and well-being of eight million people. The agency follows laws that provide us with the framework to keep air, water and land clean by preparing and issuing permits to businesses, local governments and state and federal facilities. These permits establish safe limits, reduce pollution and hold violators accountable.

Our efforts are paying off. For example, Virginia is breathing cleaner air than ever before. Water quality improvements have helped bring the Chesapeake Bay back to life. Thousands of acres of contaminated land are being cleaned up and recovered. We have worked with businesses and environmental partners to ensure that strong environmental protections and a strong economy can go hand in hand. 

To carry out DEQ’s extensive permitting programs and environmental protection and conservation initiatives, we collaborate with a statewide team of partners to help develop clean-up plans for waterbodies, work with dedicated volunteers to monitor recreational waters, oversee the revitalization of contaminated sites to turn distressed property into viable real estate, and respond to pollution complaints and environmental emergencies to assist first responders and mitigate destructive impacts. 

This takes a talented team of professionals from six regional locations and the central office. We are engineers, biologists, hydrologists, geologists, meteorologists, inspectors, regulators, modelers, policy makers, permit writers, administrators, communicator and, of course, environmentalists. Most of all, we are mission-driven problem solvers.

The challenges ahead will require innovative approaches to environmental protection that extend into much more complex areas of public policy such as addressing climate change, environmental justice and sustainable economic development. As demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, community health is a vital component of community resilience.

To that end, with direction and support from the governor’s office and the secretary of natural resources, DEQ is invested in being part of the solution. We are currently engaged in a wholesale review of our environmental justice procedures, we are committed to transparency, public accessibility of our work and establishing programs to continue to effectively administer our environmental protection programs. 

We are also committed to reducing the pollution that causes climate change. The governor has signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act and amended the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act to require Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). 

As the governor has said, by joining RGGI, Virginia will take part in a proven, market-based program for reducing carbon pollution in a manner that protects consumers. 

On Earth Day – and every day – our number one priority remains to protect the commonwealth’s diverse and abundant natural resources in everything we do. Through this important work, DEQ supports agriculture, industry and commerce, and provides a rich, healthy environment for plants, wildlife and people. 

Together, we have made much progress in Virginia over the past few decades. We plan on continuing this legacy as we move forward to address the new challenges in the years ahead. 

David K. Paylor is director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.