Virginia’s First Year with Environmental Justice on State Books; Our Crucial Next Policy Steps

By Tyneshia Griffin (she/her)
Environmental Policy Research Analyst

We believe achieving environmental justice requires that Black, Brown, and low-income Virginians be informed, thoroughly considered, and meaningfully involved in the environmental decisions and actions of state agencies.Virginia recently adopted environmental justice policies that have started to move the needle forward on a commitment to racial and economic justice. However, low-income families and Black and Brown communities across the state continue to grapple with environmental injustices and the economic and social implications of the pandemic. There remains an urgent need for the legislature, state officials, and agencies to continue to strengthen laws so that environmental justice can be realized for all Virginians. 

 

2020 Environmental Justice Wins 

The 2020 legislative session added a handful of environmental justice policies to the state’s books.The Virginia Environmental Justice Act (VEJA) carried by Delegate Mark Keam and Senator Ghazala Hashmi, and the formal establishment of the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice (VCEJ), led by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring and Senator Mamie Locke, each marks the first time that Virginia law explicitly requires environmental justice to be considered in decisions and operations carried out by the state government.

Prior to these policies, binding legal precedent on environmental justice was established in Virginia by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals judicial decision in the case, Friends of Buckingham v. State Air Pollution Control Board. In this case, the court decided to vacate a state air permit because of the Board’s failure to consider the negative impact of a gas compressor station on a nearby historic Black, freedmen community known as Union Hill in Buckingham County.

This court victory made it explicit that the Board must consider potential disproportionate impacts from any proposed permit near a largely minority and low -income population, and found it insufficient to solely rely on ambient air standards to determine existing and foreseeable health and environmental impacts among these populations. 

With continued public engagement from state agencies and grassroots pressure from environmental justice communities, these policies can serve alongside the recent court decision as the foundation for the state government to make decisions and actions that prevent environmental injustices.

Policy Implementation Early-on

Virginia Environmental Justice Act 

The VEJA authorizes state agencies to consider environmental justice in their decisions and actions. One of the first uses of the VEJA was this fall when the state’s Air Pollution Control Board approved an air permit for a fossil-fuel based, natural gas power plant at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Unfortunately, this site is itself a federally recognized hazardous waste site, commonly known as a superfund site, and is surrounded by neighborhoods that have more people of color than the state average.

In Cumberland and Hanover Counties, residents have been organizing and preparing for citizen regulatory boards to decide whether to approve, change, or deny controversial permits. If approved, even after thorough consideration of the VEJA, these communities anticipate that the permits will increase pollution and traffic, destroy protected wetlands, and displace historic Black communities and sites important to their cultural history and heritage.

Virginia Council on Environmental Justice 

One of the first actions of the newly codified VCEJ, along with the announcement of who will serve on the council, has been the release of their annual report. Their 2020 report brings historic and emerging environmental justice issues to the attention of the Governor and state legislators and provides numerous recommendations designed to ensure, “no population, especially minority, low-income, or historically-underserved communities, should face higher levels or greater impacts of pollution than other populations.” 

Urgency Remains to Strengthen Virginia’s Environmental Justice Statutes

The VEJA and VCEJ were designed to continuously build the power and voice of Virginians who often face adverse implications from agency actions in their communities. Yet, it remains evident that for these two recent policy changes to create meaningful differences in the lives of those living through environmental injustices, it will require additional legislative action, grassroots pressure, and recognition among state and local officials that environmental justice is a binding, crucial, and an overdue policy of the Commonwealth. To continue to advance environmental justice in Virginia through state policy, we recommend the following legislative changes and agency-actions to be immediately considered:  

  1. Amend the Environmental Justice Act: Legislators must ensure agencies have clear expectations for how they should actualize environmental justice in their programs, regulations, and enforcement activities. This requires amending the The Virginia Environmental Justice Act to include requirements for agencies to create environmental justice plans, promulgate regulations for related agency actions, consider cumulative impacts, and receive coordination support from an interagency workgroup.

  2. Empower and Protect the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice: Through codification, the VCEJ has garnered much needed strength and resilience. With this change, the Secretary of Natural Resources should more proactively enable the authority and expertise of the VCEJ with sufficient administrative support and resources. This will be needed as the council addresses more environmental justice issues from the public, provides valuable input on the implementation of important environmental policies, such as the VEJA and the Virginia Clean Economy Act, operationalizes racial equity, and resists conflicts of interests, as a permanent standing body.

  3. Improve Public Engagement; Tidewater Air Monitoring and Evaluation (TAME) Project: The Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) intends to take immediate actions on air monitoring following their recent environmental justice report. This air monitoring project known as TAME, intends “to measure air toxics and particulate pollution from coal dust” in Norfolk and Newport News. It is critical, especially given COVID-19 restrictions, that the agency follow-through on conducting early outreach to communities within the study area, and also share opportunities for continued air monitoring with residents, and include their perspectives on coal dust pollution alongside the quantitative results in the final health risk assessment.     

  4. Institute Equity Oversight During Public Health Emergencies: The state’s COVID-19 Equity Leadership Task Force should be codified into law to ensure that health equity oversight persists over the state’s responses to public health emergencies. This task force must also use their current authorities to ensure fair and equitable implementation of recently approved COVID-19 related policies, including the eviction halts, utility disconnections moratorium, and related payment assistance programs.


Click here to read our Ten Year Vision for Democracy, Justice, and Progress.


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