Safeguarding Environmental Justice During Virginia's Special Session

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

Environmental justice communities, who are more predisposed to environmental harms and risks, largely consist of low-income families and people of color. These families have been hit hardest by cases of joblessness and are experiencing poorer health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic. The General Assembly will consider key budget and policy measures that prevent further adverse environmental harms and risks, maintain energy affordability, and support equitable workforce development during special session that should be prioritized:

Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Staff and Community Outreach

It has not been uncommon in Virginia for low-income communities and people of color to often be located near a current or proposed site for congested transportation corridors, fossil-fuel infrastructure and power plants, and coal transportation terminals — all known influencers on local air quality and overall carbon dioxide emission from fossil fuels. As reported in one of our previous blogs, recent research from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health indicates that communities with long-term exposure to just a small increase in airborne particulate matter are at greater risk of mortality from COVID-19 and need to be heard, monitored, and protected by policy and regulatory decision-making that considers health disparities to prevent poorer, unjust health outcomes. 

During the 2020 regular session, DEQ was provided $3 million to hire nine new positions to develop and improve regular communication strategies between the agency and environmental justice communities. This funding was unallotted during April’s recovenned session and was not restored in the Governor’s amended budget presented last week. Additionally, Delegate Jay Jones recently submitted a budget amendment, requesting $400,000 over the course of the biennium to hire an Environmental Justice Director within DEQ. It is vital that the General Assembly approve this amendment to move forward our state’s commitment to environmental justice and improve the lives of environmental justice communities in our commonwealth.  

State Corporation Commission (SCC), Customer Energy Bill Credits, Utility Debt Forgiveness, and  Emergency Debt Repayment Plan

The moratorium on utility service disconnections is set to expire on September 16th to allow the General Assembly time to pass relief measures that can address the problems utility customers are facing, as past due amounts owed to Dominion Energy have reached $116.6 million, as of June 30, 2020. Recently introduced legislation — SB5085 (Senator John Bell), SB5118 (Senators Jennifer McClellan and Hashmi), HB5117 (Delegate Lashrecse Aird), and HB5088 (Delegate Jay Jones) — will collectively protect energy affordability via refunds in the form of bill credits, utility debt forgiveness, and provisions for a 24 month emergency debt repayment plan to be adopted by all SCC utilities that is specifically designed to help prevent utility disconnections. Delegates Jay Jones and Lashrecse Aird have both introduced budget amendments that directly support these efforts to reduce utility debt and provide affordable utility debt repayment options for customers.

Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), Establish the Office of Offshore Wind

Per directives in the recently passed Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), DMME is responsible for administering renewable energy job training programs and the General Assembly will hold DMME leadership accountable for creating and implementing this workforce development, which  will specifically provide underserved communities with family-sustaining career opportunities in the emerging renewable energy workforce.

The Governor’s budget included about $775 million to support the establishment of an Office of Offshore Wind, highlighting the importance of this funding. Under DMME, an established Office of Offshore Wind will have a direct role in working with industry, educational institutions, and community leaders to stand-up offshore wind job training programs over the next few years that will ensure low-income individuals and people of color are included in the offshore wind workforce. 

Timing is crucial for the development of job training programs if workers of color and those from low-income communities are to have the skills and resources they need to secure jobs in our burgeoning offshore wind workforce. The wind industry is moving steadfastly towards development along the east coast, and the early predictions on when the U.S. will recover to first quarter 2020 unemployment levels nears 2030, so these investments in offshore wind job training programs should also be prioritized to ensure that all Virginia families, regardless of race or income, are not left further behind after the COVID-19 pandemic and  economic  recession. 

Call to Action

During the special session, the General Assembly should make needed investments to support the state's  commitment to environmental justice, address the utility debt crisis faced by so many Virginia families, and ensure that no Virginian is left out of job training programs to equip them with the skills needed for the green jobs of tomorrow. Please call your state delegate and senator today to let them know you support these environmental justice priorities. 

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

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