LEXINGTON — Gov. Ralph Northam moved Wednesday to strengthen a state agency dealing with the construction of two natural gas pipelines, a cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay and other environmental challenges.
In his sixth executive order since taking office in January, Northam called for a “revitalization” of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
The initiative is threefold: updating and better enforcing regulations, guarding against the rollback of environmental protections under President Donald Trump, and improving transparency at a time when DEQ has come under withering criticism from pipeline opponents.
“The environment belongs to all of us,” Northam said in announcing the executive order during remarks at an environmental symposium. “It is our birthright.”
Over the past decade, DEQ has seen its staff slashed by 30 percent and about $60 million in budget cuts.
Northam pledged to increase state funding for conservation programs and agencies to at least 2 percent of the general fund; the current level is 0.6 percent.
“DEQ has protected our air, water and land for 25 years, and we must ensure that the agency has the resources it needs to continue to protect our natural resources from pollution,” Northam said.
The order requires DEQ, in consultation with the secretary of natural resources, to review the agency’s permitting, monitoring and enforcement activities and submit a report to the governor with recommendations by April 30, 2019.
Among other things, the review will examine how effective state standards are in protecting public health and the environment, look for gaps in monitoring and delays in permitting programs, and develop an enforcement plan with the state attorney general.
The Democratic governor also ordered an evaluation of every change to federal environmental rules since Jan. 20, 2017, the day of Trump’s inauguration, and how they might affect state policy.
Under the Trump administration, there has been a reduced emphasis on fighting climate change and a rollback of environmental protections advocated by former President Barack Obama.
“We’re not going to stand for that,” Natural Resources Secretary Matt Strickler said. “We want our environmental rules and laws to remain strong.”
A third prong of the executive order seeks to improve the way DEQ communicates with the public. That will include enhancing public participation, promoting transparency and creating an ombudsman position to address questions and concerns.
Opponents of two proposed natural gas pipelines that will pass through the state — the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Southwest Virginia and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Central Virginia — have blasted DEQ for what they call shoddy protections against the release of sediment and other environmental hazards.
State regulators are scrutinizing “every foot” of the pipelines’ routes, Northam said.
Late last month, DEQ approved plans submitted by Mountain Valley to control erosion, sediment and storm water generated by digging trenches for the buried pipeline across rugged mountain slopes and through pristine streams that feed private wells and public water supplies.
A similar plan by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is still under review.
“I believe that science should dictate whether the pipelines can be built safely and in an environmentally sound way,” Northam told a crowd of about 500 attending the Environment Virginia Symposium at Virginia Military Institute, his alma mater.
Northam also said he will work to keep a ban on uranium mining in the state and fight any proposals for off-shore drilling.
“Virginia faces unprecedented threats to our environment, both with the dismantling of protections at the federal level and several pressing issues here in the commonwealth,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
Northam’s order is “a good first step in protecting our water, air and land from harmful pollution,” he said.
Other environmental organizations expressed less confidence in an agency they say often favors industry over the public interest.
“While we welcome the changes the governor has outlined, we are skeptical that today’s announcement signals the kind of transformative change the agency so desperately needs, given its history and the retention of top leadership there,” said Peter Anderson, the Virginia program manager at Appalachian Voices.
As state officials, business leaders and environmental advocates gathered in Lexington, activists farther to the west continued their stand against the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
In the Jefferson National Forest, protesters spent their 38th consecutive day in two trees along the pipeline’s route in an effort to block tree-cutting. A third protestor is stationed near the top of a 50-foot pole that is blocking an access road leading to a pipeline construction site.
Law enforcement agents with the U.S. Forest Service have surrounded the pole and are preventing supporters on the ground from sending food and water up to the woman, according to a post to the Facebook page of Appalachians Against Pipelines, the activists’ main forum.
“Other forms of harassment include shining bright lights on the sitter all night long, and maintaining a 24/7 forest service presence around the blockade,” the post stated, adding that the unidentified woman “remains strong and feeling good.”
In Roanoke County, a woman climbed into a tree stand along the pipeline’s route in the woods off Poor Mountain Road on Monday.
“I’m still up here swinging in the wind,” she said by cellphone Wednesday afternoon as a cold front approached.
The woman, who would only identify herself by the nickname Red, said she spent the past three years worrying and losing sleep over how Mountain Valley would take her family’s land through eminent domain to build a pipeline that will pollute the mountain.
“I feel much better up here in the tree,” she said. “Because I feel that I’m finally doing something.
“It probably won’t stop them, and I’ll probably spend six months in jail. … But I’m tired of them walking all over everybody.”