After Union Hill compressor station permit battle, DEQ issues request for environmental justice study

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. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Dec. 19, 2018)

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is seeking a consultant to perform an environmental justice study for the agency aimed at recommending regulatory and statutory changes “to promote equity in environmental decision making.”

In a request for proposals Tuesday that closes on May 10, the DEQ says “there exists an immediate need to respond to the emerging public expectation that environmental justice be considered and addressed in a meaningful way,” adding that the agency seeks “to develop a clear process for incorporating environmental justice principles into its strategic planning and program implementation.”

The consultant will be tasked with reviewing the “strategies” and existing authority of DEQ and other state, local and federal agencies and suggest revisions that “clarify or expand statue authority” to address environmental justice in the agency’s permit decisions and improve outreach and education efforts.

The agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

“DEQ’s environmental justice study will help ensure the agency’s programs benefit all communities, especially those that have historically been the most burdened by pollution,” said Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement that appears blissfully unaware of the existence of irony.

The announcement will come as cold comfort for Union Hill in Buckingham County, where a bruising battle over an air permit for a natural gas compressor station planned for the largely African-American community, founded by freedmen, as part of Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline. During the board’s proceedings, DEQ rejected the idea that it could consider the suitability of the site, including its proximity to Union Hill.

“We can’t know where to go if we don’t know where we are,” said Kendyl Crawford, director of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light. “This study announced by DEQ today hopefully will begin us down a path of accountability to heal the broken trust and the toxic damage done over centuries to disenfranchised communities.”

Northam’s administration drew condemnation over its handling of the compressor station project — which had become a rallying point for environmental justice advocates — including yanking two members off the State Air Pollution Control Board who had voiced concerns about the siting of the massive project and its emissions.

And in February, former Vice President Al Gore and the Rev. William Barber II, a civil rights leader, said Northam was missing a chance to show his newfound support for racial equity in the aftermath of his blackface scandal by keeping quiet about the project.

Northam has also dissolved the former Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice in favor of creating a new body called the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice. The members of the old council, who had called for a halt to Virginia’s contentious natural gas pipeline projects and were ignored by the governor, were invited to apply for the new body. Environmental groups, including some who have been pushing the state for years to better incorporate environmental justice into its decision making, expressed some dismay with the yet-to-be named council’s structure.

“Environmental justice leaders in Virginia remain committed to working with the administration on concrete actions to address Virginia’s inequities,” said Queen Zakia Shabazz, coordinator for the Environmental Justice Collaborative, a coalition of 23 organizations launched four years ago to provide statewide coordination on environmental justice issues. Shabazz said the group is “still awaiting a response to the letter we submitted to the administration providing expert input on the disbanding and reconvening of the environmental justice council. ”