Virginia’s environmental agency has a daunting to-do list: dealing with climate change, offsetting regulatory rollbacks at the federal level, cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and monitoring work on the largest natural gas pipeline ever built in the state, to name just a few.
Yet the Department of Environmental Quality is being asked to do more with less state funding, fewer employees, and an outdated set of regulations.
That’s according to a report issued by Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler. In April 2018, Gov. Ralph Northam commissioned the report as part of an executive order that called for the “revitalization” of DEQ.
Funding cuts have impacted “the Commonwealth’s capacity to monitor and reduce pollution, develop or update critical environmental regulations, process permits, and engage with the public,” Strickler wrote.
In a 13-page report last week, Strickler listed about a dozen improvements made or begun over the past year, and outlined nearly 50 more steps for DEQ and the General Assembly to take in modernizing the agency.
Northam’s executive order called for change at three levels: updating and better enforcing regulations, guarding against the rollback of environmental protections under President Donald Trump, and improving communication between DEQ and the public.
While the changes so far are encouraging, much more needs to be done, environmental groups said.
“This begins first and foremost with restoring funding for DEQ, which has seen its budget, staff size and enforcement capability shrink significantly in recent years,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
All seats in the state legislature are on the ballot this November, and “we are committed to breaking the current logjam at the General Assembly and electing lawmakers who will let DEQ do its job, put environmental protection and equity first, and hold polluters accountable,” Town said.
Since 2001, DEQ has lost 74 positions. About 760 employees currently work at the agency’s headquarters in Richmond and six regional offices, including one in Salem.
The amount of state funding DEQ received in the most recent budget cycle was $37 million less than it received in 2001. And the percentage of DEQ operations supported by the general fund has decreased from 40% to 20%, leaving the agency more dependent on permitting fees and federal funding.
Although the report lays out a “blueprint” for what needs to be done, Strickler said he is still in the process of making a cost estimate for changes to be implemented at the administrative, legislative and regulatory levels.
“This report is a big step, and it’s something no governor has done before with the agency,” Strickler said.
In addition to calling for improvements within DEQ, Strickler’s report points to a number of “concerning” proposals by the Trump administration that it says will weaken federal environmental standards.
The Clean Power Act, which President Barack Obama proposed to set limits on carbon pollution from U.S. power plants, is being replaced by new rules that the EPA says will lead to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions.
Gains made to improve fuel efficiency in new cars and trucks are also being rolled back, the report states, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to protect water quality in thousands of streams and wetlands is being limited.
DEQ will exercise its authority under state law to use more protective standards “in these cases, and whenever possible if the Trump administration proposes to weaken other EPA rules,” Strickler wrote.
The report also mentions natural gas pipelines, which have drawn controversy in Southwest Virginia with the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. DEQ has established a work group to find ways to limit methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure.
And more referrals to the state attorney general’s office should be made for enforcement actions, such as one last year that led to a lawsuit accusing Mountain Valley of violating state regulations meant to curb erosion and sedimentation more than 300 times, Strickler wrote.
The 303-mile, 42-inch diameter pipe is the largest to be built in Virginia, and environmental regulators have sought help from MBP, a Fairfax-based consulting firm, to inspect construction sites. Mountain Valley is paying for the contract, DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn said.
State employees and MBP officials have investigated 249 complaints through Aug. 16, according to DEQ’s website.
Yet the agency has come under fierce criticism from pipeline opponents, and some of Strickler’s recommendations are aimed at improving communications with the public.
Community outreach coordinators should be hired at each of DEQ’s six regional offices, he said, and a statewide ombudsperson should be appointed. Among other things, the new positions would work to establish live webcasts of agency meetings, make documents more accessible for public review and boost social media engagement.
The agency should also develop a statewide climate action plan, the report says.
“Climate change impacts nearly every aspect of DEQ’s work, as well as the work of many other state agencies and all citizens of the Commonwealth, but has not been fully integrated into Virginia’s public policy or agency decision making,” Strickler wrote.
Other recommendations include upgrading air and water quality monitoring, paying more attention to how some projects affect minority and underrepresented communities, updating fee schedules and making improvements in the state permitting process.
The report came after officials with DEQ and the secretary of natural resources’ office met with a number of stakeholders, including individuals and groups such as the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“We are excited to see the Commonwealth’s commitment to current health and environmental standards, regardless of risky rollbacks in D.C.,” Sarah Francisco, director of the law center’s Virginia office, said in a written statement.
“And we are eager to help the administration turn this report into real change that will improve the environment and public health for the benefit of all Virginians.”