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Va. Senate Democrats pass GOP bill to remove power of citizen environmental boards

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Thirteen Democratic state senators joined Republicans on Monday to pass a GOP bill that would strip three citizen environmental boards of their power to issue or deny permits, instead granting that authority to the Department of Environmental Quality.

The citizen boards only rarely deviate from the desire of Virginia’s DEQ on which permits to issue. But in December one of the boards turned down a permit connected to the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, angering business groups.

The Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board voted to deny an air quality permit for a natural gas compressor station connected to the contentious pipeline, which would carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia but is facing lawsuits seeking to stop it. The vote in question related to a pipeline extension to North Carolina.

The legislation would affect the State Air Pollution Control Board, the State Water Control Board and the Virginia Waste Management Board.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, the bill’s patron, said the boards would remain focused on policy and regulations and still hold full hearings and hear public comment. But the legislation allows DEQ to decide on key environmental permits, not the citizens any longer.

The Republicans can’t get anything through the Senate, which Democrats control 21-19, without some Democratic support. On Stuart’s bill, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, was among the 13 Democrats in support. The bill passed the Senate 32-8. Similar bills are pending in the House of Delegates.

Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, was among Democrats who backed Stuart’s bill.

“I think it’s important to note that they [citizens] will still have policy and regulatory authority,” Mason said in an interview. “What this does is when it comes down to issuing the actual permit, that will be done by the professionals ... by DEQ.”

He referenced the air board denying the Mountain Valley Pipeline compressor station permit, but said the bill was not “a reaction to anything in particular.”

Mason also said he holds no position on the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the legislation would be a major change in how Virginia issues significant environmental permits.

The air board’s vote to deny a permit for the compressor station in December was the only time in 20 years the board he gone against DEQ, said Kenny Fletcher, the foundation’s Virginia communications coordinator.

“Citizen boards ensure that Virginians have a meaningful voice in shaping the rules that are intended to protect our air, water, lands, and communities,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner said in a statement earlier this month.

The environmental group Wild Virginia also had tried to convince the Senate the civilian oversight boards have value.

Del. Rob Bloxom, R-Accomack, is sponsoring a bill in the House.

He said at a hearing earlier this month that because the citizens on the boards are appointed by the governor, they change philosophies “probably more wildly than business likes” and called the boards a “stumbling block” to the issuing of permits.

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pwilson@timesdispatch.com; (804) 649-6061; Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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