General Assembly will decide whether to build environmental justice into Virginia law

General Assembly will decide whether to build environmental justice into Virginia law
Supporters of the Green New Deal rally in Capitol Square in Richmond on the first day of the 2020 General Assembly session. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury) (Source: Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Two years after Virginia established its first formal advisory body on environmental justice, legislators will weigh several bills proposing to weave the principle into the daily workings of state governance.

“Environmental justice isn’t just theoretical. It actually happens all the time,” said Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, who has put forward one bill making an advisory council on the issue permanent and directing all state agencies to develop policies to promote consideration of environmental justice in their regular operations.

Case in point to the delegate: the State Air Pollution Control Board’s January 2019 issuance of a permit to build a controversial natural gas compressor station in the historic freedmen’s community of Union Hill in Buckingham County. That decision was struck down by a federal court Tuesday partly on environmental justice grounds.

“Clearly with the 4th Circuit decision we now know the state has to do a better job with environmental justice,” said Keam.

This session he and a handful of Democratic lawmakers including House Majority Leader Charniele Herring of Alexandria are championing efforts to make environmental justice a more systematic part of how agencies operate, permit and regulate activities within the commonwealth.

Gov. Ralph Northam, who in the wake of a blackface scandal last February pledged to commit the rest of his term to racial equity, has also publicly embraced the movement’s aims.

He reconstituted Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s advisory council on the issue, although his administration’s decision to ignore the body’s recommendations on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, as well as his replacement of two air board members who expressed concern about the compressor station, drew fire from advocates. His proposed biennial budget earmarks almost $5.5 million over two years for environmental justice and outreach initiatives. And at his State of the Commonwealth speech before the General Assembly Jan. 8, he pledged his commitment to make permanent the advisory council, whose time is running out under state restrictions governing such bodies.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.