Environmental Justice Advocates in Virginia Fear Recent Legal Gains Could Be Thwarted by Politics in Richmond

The state’s Council on Environmental Justice needs additional funding, they say, while the Republican Youngkin administration hasn’t made community environmental concerns a priority.

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Sections of steel pipe of the Mountain Valley Pipeline sit on wooden blocks in August 2022 near wetland areas in Callaway, Virginia. The state's General Assembly has diminished the power of residents to engage in the decision-making process for permitting and siting such projects as the Mountain Valley Pipeline under the state Department of Environmental Quality, a key environmental justice provision under Virginia law. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Sections of steel pipe of the Mountain Valley Pipeline sit on wooden blocks in August 2022 near wetland areas in Callaway, Virginia. The state's General Assembly has diminished the power of residents to engage in the decision-making process for permitting and siting such projects as the Mountain Valley Pipeline under the state Department of Environmental Quality, a key environmental justice provision under Virginia law. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

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Despite Democratic control of the Virginia General Assembly after the November election, environmental justice advocates in the state say progress in 2024 will be difficult under the Republican administration of Gov. Glenn Youngkin. 

There is no political will in the administration “to really spell out what environmental justice means in practice,” said Mark Sabath of the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

Virginia made environmental justice a priority in 2020 under the Environmental Justice Act, when Democrats last had control of the legislature. But following Youngkin’s election, and Republicans reclaiming the House of Delegates in 2021, advocates say environmental justice action has been targeted by powerful opponents in government and industry, with the Youngkin administration largely declining to implement the law as intended.   

“Virginia was a leader, and we were out front on transparency and citizen involvement in controversial policy,” said Peter Anderson, director of state energy policy at the nonprofit Appalachian Voices. “And then…we shifted.”

The Youngkin Administration did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

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Earlier this month, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) voted to approve a wetlands permit for Columbia Gas Transmission’s Virginia Reliability Project to replace nearly 50 miles of gas pipeline between Hampton Roads and Central Virginia with an even wider pipeline.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network said in a press release after the vote that the VMRC had failed to engage with affected communities or listen to public comment in opposition to the project, offering a public comment period that was too short and ran over the Thanksgiving holiday.

“It is beyond absurd that VMRC did less than the bare minimum to notify the public about the opportunity to submit comments—and then did not take into account the fact that 100 percent of comments were in opposition to the project,” said Charles Brown, the group’s Hampton Roads organizer. “What is the point of public comment periods if the public is neither engaged nor listened to?” 

In a statement, the director of coastal policy for the VMRC, Rachael Peabody, said the public notification process for the hearing was in compliance with Virginia law, including advertisements in local newspapers and written notification to property owners adjacent to the project. 

Changing Priorities and Backlash

Environmental justice is defined in the 2020 act as the “fair and meaningful involvement of every person” in the development, implementation, or enforcement of environmental rules and regulations. It also requires the commonwealth to promote environmental justice with a focus on environmental justice communities, which are defined as low-income or communities of color. In Virginia, they make up more than 50 percent of the state.

The law was passed after extensive grassroots advocacy against fossil fuel infrastructure in communities that activists said were already disproportionately burdened. The advocacy included efforts to stop a compressor station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Union Hill, an historic Black community in Buckingham County. The Fourth Circuit Appeals Court rescinded a permit for that project, helping to kill the pipeline.

However, since the law’s passage, the implementation of environmental justice considerations at the state level has slowed or stopped entirely, which activists say coincides with Youngkin’s election. 

“I think it would be irresponsible to say we think we’re getting what we hoped for, because there’s a great deal of pushback and backlash,” said Faith Harris, executive director of Virginia Interfaith Power and Light and a member of the state’s Council on Environmental Justice.  

Under Youngkin, activists say, environmental justice has been dropped as a priority and actively targeted. The administration has let the Council on Environmental Justice, which is meant to advise on matters of environmental justice across the state, atrophy and go understaffed, they say. A 2022 annual report states that the council is not funded or supported at the level of other advisory boards. The website is also out of date, with the homepage showing board members from 2019.

They also accuse the Youngkin Administration of restructuring the Department of Environmental Quality so that the newly created Office of Environmental Justice no longer reported to the head of the department.

“That shows you the priority,” said Gustavo Angeles, environmental justice program manager at the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. He and several other experts also point to the draft guidance from Virginia DEQ on how to implement environmental justice, which the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Sabath described as a “laundry list” of the situations in which  environmental justice would not be taken into account; the draft was proposed early this year, and has yet to be finalized.

“It shows that even when the agency or administration is taking up this challenge of spelling out what it means to promote environmental justice, it seems like they’ve been looking for a way out of it instead,” said Sabath. 

Angeles said he’s skeptical that agencies and staffers that have been operating one way for years, sometimes decades, will accept this kind of change without enforcement from the top.

In response to a query about the restructuring at DEQ, Danielle Simms, the department’s environmental justice program manager, said restructuring can happen at DEQ as the agency director sees fit, and the Office of Environmental Justice does not report directly to the agency director. However, this does not affect the operations of the office, she said, which is fully staffed with coordinators in all six DEQ regions.

“A Problem at Every Level” 

The General Assembly has also diminished the power of residents to engage in the decision-making process for permitting and siting projects under DEQ, a key environmental justice provision under Virginia law. 

In 2021, the state air pollution control board rejected a permit for a compressor station that would have been part of the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate extension. After that action, the general assembly passed a bill removing final decision-making power from these citizen-staffed boards; now they can vote on regulations, but not determine permitting.

“It’s clear we have a problem at every level,” said Harris. “These are issues that impact people’s everyday lives, and yet they can’t find relief, from local or state agencies, or from the administration, or really in many ways from the general assembly.”

Anderson, from Appalachian Voices, considers the diminished powers of the control boards to be one of the biggest problems facing the state. The updated process is the one in place for further permits connected to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a controversial project that has been flagged for safety and environmental justice concerns, he said. Unlike the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, it is moving ahead.

“I think some of the legislators have tried to balance environmental justice concerns with trying to make Virginia a good place for industry, a place that’s friendly to industry,” he said. “That’s a calculus legislators have been making when they put forth bills.”

One of the major companies benefitting from that balance is Dominion Energy, Virginia’s monopoly utility. The company has been extensively criticized for its political influence over the regulatory policy governing its operations. In 2023, the utility donated more than $12 million to politicians and candidates from both political parties, including Don Scott, the nominee for speaker in the House of Delegates. Scott would be the first Black speaker in Virginia’s history.

“They have an outsized role, and they have used their influence over many years to prevent a lot of the progress that we could have already achieved,” said Harris. 

But the broader climate and environmental justice context, said Angeles, is bigger than just Dominion; it’s Virginia’s pride and focus on being the top state for business in the country. 

“Virginia is ‘number one’ for business, and all the administrations are really proud to tell you. [But] when you’re number one, there is somebody impacted, communities are going to suffer from that.”

Steve Fischbach, litigation director for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, agrees. Industry, he said, is organized, well-financed, doesn’t like environmental regulation and has “access to legislators and other elected officials that environmental justice advocates could never dream of.”

Dominion Energy did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The company’s proposed 2023 Integrated Resources Plan says it will consider environmental justice on a case-by-case basis before the State Corporation Commission.

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However, the utility has proposed a new gas peaker plant in Chesterfield, a community that has lived in the shadow of a coal-powered Dominion plant for years before its last coal boilers stopped operating earlier this year. They were replaced with oil and gas units that currently generate about 400 megawatts of power. 

The proposed plant, opposed by the local chapter of the NAACP, would add an additional 1,000 megawatts of power to the grid. A Dominion spokesman has said that the company has met with community-based organizations regarding its plans for the new plant and is keeping them abreast of developments. 

Even with Democrats in control of both houses of the General Assembly, environmental justice advocates remain pessimistic about their chances for progress in 2024 for a number of reasons, from Youngkin’s opposition, to campaign finance laws that place no limitations on donations to political candidates.

“It’s a brick wall,” said Faulkner, saying that even if there’s action within the General Assembly in the new year, any legislation passed would still have to be signed by the governor. 

One place she does see hope is in coalition building, which she said has been at the root of some of the environmental justice successes in the state thus far. “I really do think that the most hope, the most promise, is in bringing those coalitions together,” she said, “holding power among the grassroots to be able to push forward.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the organization where Steve Fischbach works. He is the litigation director at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, not the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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