Future of Virginia air board committee in question

Public engagement committee was started after controversial decisions from the board

By: - September 9, 2022 12:02 am

Members of the public at a meeting of the State Air Pollution Control Board in 2018. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

The future of a committee convened by the State Air Pollution Control Board to improve public engagement and transparency in environmental permitting is in doubt with new leadership on the panel.

Board Chair James Patrick Guy said he was “not disposed to … continue the committee at this time.”

“If there’s a need for it in the future we can certainly discuss it,” he said.

The Committee on Public Engagement was created in 2019 in the wake of the panel’s controversial approval of an air permit for the now-canceled Chickahominy Power Station in Charles City County.  

Its inception also followed the granting of an air permit for a compressor station in the predominantly Black community of Union Hill in Buckingham County that was intended to be part of the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  The permit was later overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit on the grounds that the air board and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality had neglected to consider environmental justice impacts and less polluting measures.

Both cases spurred months of tense meetings often packed with angry citizens opposing the permits.

After several years of tumult, Air Board members reexamine public engagement process

Board members Hope Cupit and Lornel Tompkins, both appointees of former Gov. Ralph Northam, said the committee had been created to explore ways to better engage communities impacted by certain projects, in addition to providing transparency.

After the committee’s creation, “the public seemed to be more open and the atmosphere changed toward board members.,” Cupit said.

Former Vice Chair Roy Hoagland had previously stated that prior to establishing the committee, the board ensuring the public was aware, educated and transparent weren’t sufficient. Current board member Staci Rijal also previously noted that the board’s typical weekday meetings during the workday required members of the public to request time off, giving greater input to advocacy groups that pay employees to comment on particular issues and projects. 

The Virginia Manufacturers Association had previously cautioned that increased public engagement requirements could be costly for businesses and could directly impact the Virginia economy.

Attempts to reach members of the Air Pollution Control Board for comment were unsuccessful Thursday. According to a DEQ spokesperson, the committee is “not planning to meet at this time.” 

Legislative changes

Questions about the committee’s future come just two months after a new law went into effect transferring permitting powers from the air board to DEQ. 

Under the legislation, patroned by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, DEQ will have authority over the approval of all permits. 

Previously, decisions on controversial permits could be elevated from the agency to the board if more than 25 people requested that action. 

DEQ can now convene additional public hearings on a permit if it is requested by 25 people or if a permit is deemed controversial under a new definition. 

A flow chart of the new permit approval process now under the purview of the Department of Environmental Quality, not the Air Pollution Control Board anymore. (Courtesy of DEQ)

DEQ Policy Analyst Karen Sabasteanski said the board will be briefed as part of the new permit approval process and will have the opportunity to comment.

“What happens beyond that, I can’t tell you,” she told the Mercury of any board action following the briefing.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation had previously stated citizen boards are something Virginia should be proud of.

“I think it is helpful and necessary for good governance for citizens to have an opportunity to see and understand what goes on and to weigh in,” CBF Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner reiterated by email Thursday.

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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics. Catch him in nature experiencing all the outdoors has to offer, and contact him at [email protected]

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