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.

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