The Bulletin

Bill stripping citizen air and water boards of permitting power headed to governor

By: - February 28, 2022 2:42 pm

James Lofton, left, conferring with fellow new State Water Control Board member Paula Hill Jasinski, made the motion to reconsider a certification related to the Mountain Valley Pipeline at his first meeting in December. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

A Senate bill that will remove permitting power from Virginia’s citizen air and water boards and transfer it to the Department of Environmental Quality cleared the House of Delegates Monday and is headed to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk. 

“This is the final vote we will take,” Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, told lawmakers while urging them to oppose the measure, which will upend a decades-old system of environmental oversight largely unique to Virginia. “Once it leaves here today, it’s going to go to the governor.” 

After the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board this December went against a DEQ recommendation to deny an air permit for a compressor station planned as a Mountain Valley Pipeline offshoot, Republicans proposed a suite of bills intended to limit the power of that board and the State Water Control Board. 

During committee hearings, concerns with the water board largely centered on a December 2019 decision by the body to require 45 major Eastern Shore chicken farms to evaluate whether they could use the shallow Columbia aquifer instead of limited deep-water reserves as their source of water. 

That decision exceeded DEQ’s recommendation that only 26 of the farms be required to do the evaluations, which require expensive drilling of wells. 

Groundwater supplies have long been a significant worry on the Eastern Shore, where residents rely on the aquifer for all of their water needs.  

On the House floor Monday, Del. Robert Bloxom, R-Accomack, who is carrying a different bill to limit the air and water boards’ authority, said that when businesses are required to jump through “another hoop and another hoop and another hoop that costs money and costs time, it’s time to reevaluate how we do business.” 

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, said that while business certainty may be important, “at the same time the people of Virginia need certainty” that Virginia’s environmental resources are being protected. 

“If the process takes additional time, requires additional paperwork or data, then I think it’s worth it,” she said. 

The bill, Senate Bill 657, ultimately cleared the House on a 51-47 vote. Thirteen Democrats in the Senate had previously supported the proposal, including Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

If passed, Bloxom’s legislation, House Bill 1261, would further alter the air and water boards by revamping the appointment process. Currently, the boards are appointed solely by the governor, with seats being vacated on a rolling basis. The new proposal would transfer some of those appointments to the House and the Senate.

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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]

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