Environmental boards are a special place to serve the public good 

June 25, 2020 12:01 am

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

By Queen Zakia Shabazz and Chad Oba

One of the most important displays of a government such as Virginia’s that is “of the people, by the people and for the people” are the many boards and commissions that advise or oversee state agencies or set policy on all manner of issues. The citizens who serve on these boards and commissions voluntarily step forward out of a commitment to the greater good. 

Currently, there are vacancies on several boards invested with protecting Virginia’s environment in a just and equitable way. We encourage Virginians who care about our air, land and water, about the climate crisis and public health, and about environmental justice to consider applying. 

In particular, we urge people of color, as well as people in frontline communities to take up this sacred duty. We historically have suffered most from ill-conceived and polluting projects, and have the most at stake in the future of how we manage our natural resources. It is our voices that must be heard and heeded. 

The Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, established by the governor just three years ago, is mandated to “provide recommendations to establish a foundation of environmental justice principles intended to protect vulnerable communities from disproportionate impacts of pollution.” While advisory in nature, the council provides a long-missing layer of accountability and is tasked with assessing environmental justice efforts across all state agencies. As we have in previous years, the nonprofit Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, will send forth our list of recommendations in support of those applicants who stand for and exhibit our shared principles of environmental justice. 

Members of the state air, water and waste boards are responsible for setting policy and evaluating pollution permit applications for a wide variety of projects, everything from landfills to power plants and natural gas pipelines. Among other requirements for board participation, members must be Virginia citizens and are “selected from the Commonwealth at large for merit without regard to political affiliation.” 

Importantly, the statute requires that members be knowledgeable of air, water or waste regulations by their education, training, “or experience.” Historically in Virginia, and to this day, minority, low-income and under-served communities disproportionately experience harmful impacts to their health and quality of life caused by more severe environmental degradation. It is these communities that have the deepest insight and broadest experience of how decisions made by the air, water and waste boards directly impact people. 

Sadly, those impacted the most are systematically excluded from serving on various state boards because the application process is exclusionary. For instance, on the application to serve on the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, many of the questions are overly probing, of a personal nature, and intimidating to would-be board members — so much so that some have been discouraged from applying.  Some examples:

  • In the last five years, have you been publicly identified, in person or by organizational membership, with a particularly controversial national, state or local issue? 
  • In the last five years, have you submitted oral or written views to any governmental authority, whether executive or legislative, or to the news media on any particularly controversial issue other than in an official governmental capacity?

We are in an extraordinary moment in the history of Virginia, and the nation. The anguish and outrage of millions of Americans over the most recent deaths of innocent Black people due to police brutality and racial violence have given rise to a long-needed and ongoing awakening to systemic injustices throughout all facets of our society, including environmental policies. The voices of historically disenfranchised people must be heard now, more than ever. 

So again, we urge people of color and directly impacted community members to consider serving on these boards. And we call upon the governor to ensure these stories are heard by appointing members to these boards and to the environmental justice council who bring their experiences to the table. 

Queen Shabazz is coordinator of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative and Chad Oba is president of Friends of Buckingham, which has opposed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

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