Senate panel advances bill to strip citizen boards’ environmental permitting power

Key Democrats join with Republicans to back environmental permitting reforms

By: - February 8, 2022 5:49 pm

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

A Democrat-controlled Senate panel advanced a Republican proposal Tuesday to strip two Virginia citizen environmental boards of their permitting power, although the committee chair called the decision “a very close call.” 

“This bill is not done,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, after the 11-4 vote. “There’s going to be some further work on it, I have a feeling.” 

The proposal, which folded together Senate Bill 81 from Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, and Senate Bill 657 from Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, would alter the current structure of Virginia’s environmental review system by vesting all permitting power with the director of the Department of Environmental Quality.  

While most permitting decisions are handled by DEQ, controversial cases can be elevated to the State Air Pollution Control Board and State Water Control Board if more than 25 individual requests for board consideration are made and if those requesters “raise substantial, disputed issues relevant to” the permit decision. 

On Tuesday, Stuart told the committee that he believed the air board had become an “activist board,” citing its December decision to deny an air permit for the Lambert compressor station, a key part of a proposed offshoot of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. 

Initially, said Stuart, “I was of the opinion we needed to obliterate these boards” before other lawmakers convinced him to tone down the proposal. “We should have done it 14 years ago and we need to do it now.” 

Numerous groups representing regulated industries, such as the Virginia Manufacturers Association, Virginia Agribusiness Council and Virginia Chamber of Commerce, testified in favor of the proposal, as did the Virginia Municipal League, which was represented by former Secretary of Natural Resources Preston Bryant. Most emphasized the need for greater certainty in permitting decisions. 

“We are a complete outlier. No state gives this much power to seven people,” said Brett Vassey, executive director of the Virginia Manufacturers Association. 

Opponents of a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County protested outside the General Assembly Building ahead of a State Air Pollution Control Board meeting in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Dec. 19, 2018)

Robert Shinn, a lobbyist for Mountain Valley Pipeline developer Equitrans Midstream, told the committee that “there really should not be discretion” when it comes to air permit decisions. “Either you hit the National Ambient Air Quality Standards or you don’t.” 

But an equally large number of environmental groups continued to oppose the legislation, saying that depictions of the boards as activist bodies were inaccurate, that boards rarely go against DEQ recommendations on permits and that the current system offers needed transparency. 

“Last I checked, we’re still the best place in America to do business,” said Walton Shepherd of the Natural Resources Defense Council, alluding to Virginia’s much-touted designation as CNBC’s Top State for Business

“Better outcomes come when this collaborative work between the board and the staff happen,” said Sheldon Miles, a former water board chair who opposed changes to the citizen boards’ structure pushed by the General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine’s administration in 2007. 

Peter Anderson, an attorney for Appalachian Voices, attributed some of the uncertainty cited by businesses to the fallout from an air permit awarded by the state to the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline to build a compressor station in the predominantly Black community of Union Hill in Buckingham County. 

That permit was recommended by DEQ and approved by the air board but later overturned by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Stuart said that transferring all permitting authority to DEQ wouldn’t harm the quality of review but would simply promote certainty for businesses seeking permits. 

“DEQ is a very tough regulatory agency,” he said. “All it does is now you know what the rules are.” 

Four Democrats — Sens. Barbara Favola and Dave Marsden of Fairfax, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi of Chesterfield, and Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond — voted against the bill.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the number of citizen environmental boards with permitting power. They are the State Air Pollution Control Board and the State Water Control Board. 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.