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Better, more community input is needed to address environmental injustice, commission finds

Better, more community input is needed to address environmental injustice, commission finds

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In order to stem environmental injustice, Virginia should improve how it seeks input from minority communities and their advocates before issuing permits that could disrupt environmental quality, a commission studying systemic racism in Virginia recently told state officials.

The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law, in its second report, urged state officials to take a close look at policies in education, housing, the environment and more that have created an inequitable landscape for people of color in Virginia.

“We tried to start with some of the subjects that are existential with respect to thriving and efforts to achieve equality,” said Cynthia Hudson, who chairs the commission and formerly served as the state’s chief deputy attorney general.

Pointing to the essential need for air and water, and a long history of discrimination in that area, Hudson said environmental justice was “low-hanging fruit.”

The report and its recommendations come as Virginia, under the leadership of Democrats, promises to bolster environmental protections for racial and ethnic minorities long left to bear the brunt of industrial developments that harm environmental quality.

Legislation moving through the General Assembly from Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, and Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, would create an interagency working group on environmental justice with representation from key state agencies. The chambers are working to resolve differences between the two bills, namely, a requirement in the House bill that localities include environmental justice in their long-term city planning.

“The idea is to get all levels of government to get thinking about environmental justice,” Simonds said in an interview.

Those efforts build on legislation enacted last year that defined environmental justice and made permanent the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, a group that had been meeting and advising the state on a temporary basis.

The group held its inaugural meeting Feb. 18, and Gov. Ralph Northam attended. Duron Chavis, who was recently named to the group, said he’s eager to help connect state officials to people who have been harmed by the legacy of racist policies.

“I’m definitely looking forward to finding community members that are approximate to these issues and having their voices centered,” said Chavis, founder of Happily Natural Day, which focuses on food, climate and public health justice for Black and brown communities in the Richmond area.

“It’s not just pipelines; there are so many issues that I don’t know have been focused on: urban heat, food access, air quality. Issues that have been the result of racist policies that still linger today,” Chavis said. “I have yet to see the intentionality or investments to address those inequities in a tangible way. Maybe that’s what could come, that a body like this can actualize.”

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The report, “Identifying and addressing the vestiges of inequity and inequality in Virginia’s laws,” issued five recommendations to state leaders related to environmental justice, leading first with a call to boost community input before industrial projects get the state’s green light.

The commission is asking the Department of Environmental Quality to develop procedures to ensure that public regulatory agencies receive “meaningful input” from minority communities that would be affected by environmental permits.

Andy Block, the vice chair of the commission and former director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, said developers for projects that might pose harm to nearby residents, or that might be undesirable to those residents, sometimes “counted on lack of resistance and lack of participation” to site their projects.

“Too often, we think about notice as a formality. As long as the person doing the project follows the procedure, it’s OK,” he said.

“What we suggest here is that we might want to change that paradigm, and make permits contingent on input received, not on notice given. That’s not where the law is now, but the conversations are moving in that direction.”

The report leaves it up to the state to figure out what those procedures might be, but as an example, it points to a policy in Oregon that requires that agencies hold hearings on permit requests at times and in locations that are convenient for people in the affected communities.

It also points to West Virginia, which has an Office of Environmental Advocate within its Department of Environmental Protection to help guide public participation.

The report specifically points to Union Hill, a historically Black community founded by freed slaves in Virginia’s Buckingham County that fought off the construction of a natural gas compressor station. Area residents, backed by environmental groups, argued that the impact of pollution to be emitted by the station represented environmental injustice because it would disproportionately harm the nearby Black community.

The dispute reached the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the area’s residents, arguing that “environmental justice is not just a box to be checked.”

The court sent the case back to state regulators for reconsideration but, in July, the dispute became moot: Dominion Energy and North Carolina-based Duke Energy announced they were nixing their proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and, in turn, the Union Hill compressor station.

Chad Oba, president of Friends of Buckingham County, which led the effort against the pipeline, said state government officials did not seek out local input on the project, and that response to opposition shared with the state went unanswered for months.

“At every level of government — local and state and federal — people were largely unheard. It was very cumbersome for people to participate,” Oba said. She said federal public participation meetings on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline were held in different counties, and often at night in the winter, a treacherous time for rural roads.

“We did our best. I did a lot of running around trying to keep people informed,” she added. “But it should be up to the state to find out who lives there and give them an opportunity to be heard.”

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The report also issued recommendations related to access by people of color to the state’s public parks and outdoor recreation areas. The commission is directing the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to create a “Statewide Park Equity Mapper,” a tool that would map demographic information and access to public parks to better help the state and localities pick the sites of future parks.

The commission is also directing the same agency to consider including environmental justice advocates in the master planning for the state’s park system moving forward.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of outdoor recreational space for physical and mental health,” said Lukus Freeman, a student at the University of Virginia School of Law State and Local Government Policy Clinic who contributed research on environmental justice issues to the commission’s report.

The commission’s two final recommendations focus on clean energy and Virginia’s tribal groups.

In an open-ended recommendation, the commission urged Virginia lawmakers to incentivize residential solar development for communities of color, “either within current programs or through a new program.”

The commission argued that growth in the solar industry has been “confined to middle-class households,” and that the state should ensure communities of color are part of the state’s transition to clean energy.

The commission’s final recommendation proposes the creation of a new job within the Department of Environmental Quality: tribal liaison. The commission argued that better communication is needed between state environmental officials and tribal leaders, but that lacking structure has meant that “their perspectives often go unheard in situations in which they are entitled to be heard.”

“Certainly, there is reckoning to be had on treatment of the state’s Native American communities,” Hudson said.

(The permanent Council on Environmental Justice includes a member of the Pamunkey tribe, Kathryn MacCormick, who is also an environmental justice consultant for Dominion Energy.)

Northam created the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law by executive order in June 2019, as the governor sought to address racial inequality following the blackface scandal that engulfed his administration in February of that year.

The administration said the order was inspired by legislation from Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, and Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, that removed racially discriminatory language from the state’s minimum wage laws.

An initial report focused on racist language in the state code that was no longer in effect but had not been formally repealed. For its second report, the commission turned to systemic racism bolstered by laws, policies or practices currently in effect.

It issued recommendations in the areas of housing, education, criminal justice, agriculture and environmental justice.

Hudson said the commission will issue at least one more report, which she said will focus on race and economic opportunity, including a look at policies and practices that exacerbate racial inequities in economic achievement.

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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