The Bulletin

Virginia DEQ announces new Environmental Justice Office

By: - April 22, 2021 1:41 pm

The Rev. Paul Wilson, pastor of Union Hill and Union Grove Baptist churches in Buckingham, speaks at a rally ahead of the State Air Pollution Control Board meeting last year on a crucial permit for a compressor station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality on Thursday announced the formation of a new Environmental Justice Office, in line with a key recommendation issued last fall by a consultant hired by the agency to assess how it could better handle environmental justice issues.

The new office “is the result of DEQ’s efforts to address environmental justice issues across the entirety of the agency’s programs,” said DEQ Director David Paylor in a news release from the agency. 

Renee Hoyos, former executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, has been hired as director of the new office. Jerome Brooks, who previously managed DEQ’s Office of Water Compliance and directed the Office of Air Compliance Coordination, will serve as environmental justice coordinator. 

“The work of government can be a mystery to the lay person and, at times, discourage public participation,” said Hoyos in a statement. “Throughout my career, I have worked with communities on the processes government agencies use to make environmental decisions. I’ve learned that decisions that impact communities benefit from early engagement of all parties, which creates a better project and a safer community.” 

DEQ has in recent years been entangled in several high-profile struggles over environmental justice, of which the most prominent was the controversy over whether the Atlantic Coast Pipeline should be allowed to build a natural gas compressor station in the majority-Black community of Union Hill in Buckingham County.

A permit issued by the agency and approved by the State Air Pollution Control Board was subsequently overturned by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, largely on environmental justice grounds. 

“Environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked,” the court admonished state officials. 

Prior to the 4th Circuit’s ruling, in April 2019, DEQ hired Charlottesville-based Skeo Solutions to head a team to comprehensively examine how the agency could incorporate environmental justice into its policies and procedures. 

Among the recommendations that emerged from the 18-month study was the creation of an environmental justice office. DEQ pledged to move forward with the office at the time of the report’s release in October. 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.