Governor signs bill making Virginia Council on Environmental Justice permanent

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)

After almost two years of operating on a temporary basis, the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice became permanent Wednesday when Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill establishing it as an advisory body to the executive branch.

“It’s past time we created a permanent council on environmental justice,” said Northam in a statement. “This bill will help to ensure communities are directly involved in the decisions that affect them most, and will help prevent vulnerable Virginians from being disproportionately impacted by pollution, climate change and environmental hazards.” 

The final legislation, which was carried by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring of Alexandria, creates the 27-member council to provide recommendations to the governor “that maintain a foundation of environmental justice principles intended to protect vulnerable communities from disproportionate impacts of pollution.”

The body will include representatives of Native American tribes, civil rights organizations, and the public health and higher education sectors, among others.

The creation of the permanent council is part of a broader push this session to incorporate environmental justice into the daily operations of state agencies, particularly the Department of Environmental Quality.

Advocates have urged local, state and federal governments to consider environmental justice — defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 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” — since the concept was first formulated in the 1980s.

Little action was taken, however, until recent years, when heightened national awareness of racial disparities and, in Virginia, the fight over the state’s approval of a controversial compressor station in the freedmen’s community of Union Hill, helped revive public attention

Jay Ford, a member of the current council and a coordinator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he was “thrilled” action had been taken to make the body permanent, a move consistently recommended by members and environmental justice stakeholders.

“Given the growing environmental justice challenges we face from climate change, it is now more important than ever that Virginians have a meaningful and permanent venue to be heard,” he said.

Kendyl Crawford, director of nonprofit Virginia Interfaith Power and Light, applauded the state’s response to what she described as “generations of oppression and heavy environmental burden placed on the backs of low-income families and communities of color.”

“By no means is the struggle towards environmental justice over,” she said, “but now a foundation has been laid with the support of Governor Northam.”