Environmental boards are a special place to serve the public good

Environmental boards are a special place to serve the public good
The sun sets over the James River in Richmond. (Source: Ned Oliver/VirginiaMercury)

By Queen Zakia Shabazz and Chad Oba

One of the most important displays of a government such as Virginia’s that is “of the people, by the people and for the people” are the many boards and commissions that advise or oversee state agencies or set policy on all manner of issues. The citizens who serve on these boards and commissions voluntarily step forward out of a commitment to the greater good.

Currently, there are vacancies on several boards invested with protecting Virginia’s environment in a just and equitable way. We encourage Virginians who care about our air, land and water, about the climate crisis and public health, and about environmental justice to consider applying.

In particular, we urge people of color, as well as people in front-line communities to take up this sacred duty. We historically have suffered most from ill-conceived and polluting projects, and who have the most at stake in the future of how we manage our natural resources. It is our voices that must be heard and heeded.

The Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, established by the governor just three years ago, is mandated to “provide recommendations to establish a foundation of environmental justice principles intended to protect vulnerable communities from disproportionate impacts of pollution.” While advisory in nature, the council provides a long-missing layer of accountability and is tasked with assessing environmental justice efforts across all state agencies. As we have in previous years, the nonprofit Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, will send forth our list of recommendations in support of those applicants who stand for and exhibit our shared principles of environmental justice.

Members of the state air, water and waste boards are responsible for setting policy and evaluating pollution permit applications for a wide variety of projects, everything from landfills to power plants and natural gas pipelines. Among other requirements for board participation, members must be Virginia citizens and are “selected from the Commonwealth at large for merit without regard to political affiliation.”

Importantly, the statute requires that members be knowledgeable of air, water or waste regulations by their education, training, “or experience.” Historically in Virginia, and to this day, minority, low-income and under-served communities disproportionately experience harmful impacts to their health and quality of life caused by more severe environmental degradation. It is these communities that have the deepest insight and broadest experience of how decisions made by the air, water and waste boards directly impact people.

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