Long-awaited environmental justice study calls for ‘a cultural shift’ at DEQ

By: - October 17, 2020 12:01 am

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

An 18-month study of how the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality can incorporate environmental justice into its policies and procedures calls for both sweeping changes in the agency’s culture and new laws to more clearly govern the evaluation and management of projects that could impact sensitive communities. 

“Ultimately, DEQ must create the space for a cultural shift that centers and aligns environmental justice within its core mission and everyday activities within each program and that supports staff in moving towards a dramatically different approach to their culture and work responsibilities,” the study’s authors, a coalition of consultants headed by Skeo Solutions in Charlottesville, concluded.

The report, issued Friday, was commissioned by DEQ in April 2019 in the wake of national criticism of the state’s approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposal to construct a natural gas compressor station in the predominantly Black community of Union Hill in Buckingham County. That approval was later struck down by the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which declared in its ruling that “environmental justice is not a box to be checked.”

Similarly, the consultants caution DEQ that its success in integrating environmental justice into its work “will depend less on checking off each individual recommendation of this report and more on the investments the agency makes in building trust, shared understanding and skills for implementation among its staff, stakeholders and partners.”

The conclusions of the 47-page report are based on more than 70 interviews with people representing environmental justice advocates, conservation groups, regulated industries, local government, citizen boards and DEQ staffs, an interactive webinar held over the summer with more than 400 attendees, a survey that garnered 65 responses and reviews of best practices in other states. Proposals are grouped into nine primary areas focused on issues such as leadership, agency authority, accessibility and community engagement. 

Among its recommendations are the creation of an environmental justice office within DEQ, the establishment of an ombudsman or external agency review process to “address real or perceived influence of political and economic interests on DEQ,” and the development of new laws that would outline specific methodologies “for evaluating environmental justice benefits and impacts (including adverse, cumulative and disproportionate impacts on sensitive populations) during the permitting process.” 

Other recommendations look beyond DEQ. One would “require Virginia municipalities to consider environmental justice in their comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances.” 

Transparency and public engagement concerns, which have dogged recent permit decisions by DEQ and the state’s citizen boards for controversial projects such as the Green Ridge landfill in Cumberland County and two new natural gas plants in Charles City County, feature prominently in the Skeo proposals. These recommendations run the gamut from the development of “guidance on using a respectful approach to security during public hearings” to the creation of a “‘one-stop’ shop” statewide mapping tool to identify environmental justice and tribal communities. 

Throughout the report, the consultants repeatedly emphasize the importance of providing sufficient funding and resources for the agency to carry out environmental justice goals given “several decades of continual and significant budget cuts.” 

According to figures provided by DEQ spokesman Greg Bilyeu, appropriations for the agency from the general fund have been cut by more than $46 million since 2001, including almost $18 million in funds for management and administration. 

The biennial budget passed by the General Assembly in March would have restored a significant amount of funding to DEQ that would have allowed the agency to add 85 new positions over the next two years. Those positions would have included a dozen or more jobs devoted to environmental justice and communications, according to a presentation DEQ Director David Paylor gave to the State Air Pollution Control Board Sept. 17. 

Those hopes have since been dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic fallout. In the wake of the coronavirus’ appearance, DEQ instituted a hiring and spending freeze, and the budget increases were rolled back. 

Despite these constraints, DEQ pledged Friday that it would adopt several of the Skeo recommendations, including the creation of a new Office of Environmental Justice that will craft a two-year action plan to implement the study’s proposals. 

Calling the report “a much needed framework for action,” Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler said in a statement that “no community, especially those historically marginalized and underrepresented, should face greater risk and impacts of pollution.” 

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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 and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been 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 Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]