Senate committee signs off on permanent environmental justice council

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

A proposal to make the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice a permanent body cleared its first hurdle Wednesday evening when the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology voted 14-1 to forward it to the full chamber for consideration.

The bill, put forward by Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton, would create a standing advisory council that would offer recommendations to the governor “that maintain a foundation of environmental justice principles intended to protect vulnerable communities from disproportionate impacts of pollution.”

A new version of the proposal presented to the committee by Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler expands the membership of the body from 24 to 27 people, outlines certain groups that should be represented in the group and eliminates an expiration date for its activities.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration formally expressed its support for the measure, as did a range of environmental groups, including Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

Virginia’s first environmental justice council was formed by executive order of Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2017. The group was reconstituted last January by Northam but under state law cannot be continued in its present form after its term expires on Jan. 22, 2020. 

Several other proposals to make the council permanent are also working their way through the legislature, including the Virginia Environmental Justice Act from Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield.