Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

2020 was supposed to be the year to make the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality great again. 

After years of budget cuts to the agency charged with maintaining the health of the commonwealth’s air, water and lands, a surplus of funds in state coffers promised to put millions of dollars back into DEQ and add some 85 new workers to its ranks. 

The funding, DEQ Director David Paylor told lawmakers on an appropriations subcommittee this past January, would have been “unprecedented” in his tenure.

“I have never seen money restored,” he said. “Every time we got new money, it came with new responsibilities.” 

Then came COVID-19. 

Suddenly, along with nearly every other part of the biennial state budget passed by the General Assembly in March, DEQ’s new funding was put on hold. The agency instituted a discretionary spending freeze and a hiring freeze. Its officials braced themselves for a special session that would reconvene lawmakers in Richmond to revamp the spending plan in light of the uncertainty and economic constrictions that have accompanied the pandemic. 

At a meeting of the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board in September, Paylor sought to prepare the citizen board for cuts. 

“The overarching message is that we thought we were getting some new money for air monitoring equipment and people. We thought we were getting some money for some staffing for communications and environmental justice issues for outreach and that sort of thing,” he told members. “In the near term we are not.” 

Ultimately DEQ, like most other agencies, saw its funding restored to the level at which it had been prior to the appearance of COVID-19 in the U.S. The General Assembly preserved in the special session budget several significant environmental investments it had included in the pre-pandemic plan, including $50 million in sewage treatment plant upgrades, $50 million for local stormwater assistance, $18 million in oyster restoration funds and $93 million in agricultural cost-share money (the latter just $2 million shy of the March budget). 

Peggy Sanner, Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, expressed relief at the legislature’s maintenance of the March budget’s big-ticket environmental priorities, saying they showed a recognition that “clean water and clean air, in all ways people experience them, have direct effects on people’s health and well-being.” 

But, she cautioned, the continued low level of funding for DEQ will need to be addressed.

“It’s a problem, and it’s a problem that’s going to plague us until we figure out how to fix that problem,” she said. 

‘Stretched thin for years’

Since 2001, DEQ calculates it has lost roughly $46 million in its General Fund appropriations, with almost 40 percent of those cuts falling in the area of administrative and management expenses. 

The losses are widely acknowledged. Gov. Ralph Northam, in one of his earliest executive orders, EO6, directed a comprehensive review of the agency, including the identification of any existing gaps in its resources. Among a wide range of feedback offered during the review process were numerous references to the department’s funding. 

“I believe that there was uniform agreement that DEQ is under-resourced for its mission,” read a comment from a June 14, 2018 email. “We urge Governor Northam and (Natural Resources) Secretary (Matt) Strickler to undertake all appropriate efforts to ensure DEQ programs are adequately funded,” read another dated July 2. “Recent years have seen accelerated increases in DEQ’s workload. … Effective discharge of all these responsibilities demands the work of scores of talented staff and management — in addition to significant and reliable funding from the General Assembly.” 

Legislators have also noted funding deficiencies. Discussing Chesapeake Bay cleanup funding during the January 2020 regular legislative session, Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, said that “over the last nine years that I’ve been here, I don’t think we’ve ever actually funded it to the full needs assessment.” In a different committee meeting, Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, told Paylor, “You’ve been stretched thin for years, and we’ve all recognized that.” 

At the same time, environmental concerns have grown. Numerous polls have found rising public concern for climate change; the most recent surveys from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which examines climate change beliefs and policy support on the local, state and national levels, found that almost three-quarters of Americans accept global warming is occurring

“If you’re living in an area where you’re (seeing) regularly occurring floods, whether it’s in the Shenandoah Valley or in the coastal areas, it’s hard not to think about what might be causing it and to begin to understand how these issues are connected,” said Sanner. 

As those concerns have grown, DEQ under Paylor has found itself in the crosshairs of a string of controversies over its approval of fossil fuel infrastructure projects like the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines as well as clean up of coal ash ponds, actions that have provoked accusations that the department was abrogating its duties. 

At least one court agreed: In January 2020, the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit found that DEQ and the air board had failed in their review of an air permit sought by the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline, developed by Dominion Energy, for a controversial compressor station in the historically Black community of Union Hill. 

Natural Resources Secretary Strickler, in the final report directed by EO6 issued in August 2019, pointed a finger at funding shortfalls as one of the contributors to the agency’s problems. 

Noting funding declines, the loss of positions and permit fees set by code and not updated even to respond to inflation, Strickler’s report found “significant cuts to DEQ services and programs, impacting the commonwealth’s capacity to monitor and reduce pollution, develop or update critical environmental regulations, process permits and engage with the public.” 

In January testimony to a House subcommittee on Northam’s proposed budget, which would have added 85 new positions to DEQ as well as tens of millions in new funding, Paylor listed off a litany of needs: more harmonized greenhouse gas reporting; a communications person in each of DEQ’s six regional offices;  more monitoring equipment for air and water pollution; the ability to livestream public meetings; greater accessibility for permits; more manpower to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

DEQ was hoping in particular to increase staffing in many of these areas. Under the March budget, it planned to add nine people to work in permitting, and 10 to 12 for community outreach and environmental justice efforts. 

For the moment, those plans will remain on hold. 

Still, Sanner said efforts would continue even in the absence of funds. 

“We are trying to figure out a way to, as a community, ensure that we can continue to support all kinds of important programs in Virginia and not have to worry about one program pirating another,” she said.