Gov. Ralph Northam has reappointed David Paylor as director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency at the center of the impassioned debate over the state’s handling of a pair of natural-gas pipeline projects.
Northam made the announcement Monday at an internal staff event marking the 25th anniversary of the DEQ, according to the governor’s office.
“David Paylor has served this Commonwealth admirably as the Director of the Virginia DEQ and I am happy to reappoint him,” Northam said in a written statement. “Caring for our natural resources and expanding our clean energy economy are among my top priorities as governor and I am confident that David will help execute that agenda.”
Northam’s decision ensures continuity for a state agency that deals with complex environmental issues and extends the career of a longtime state official who has been working to stop pollution in Virginia since the 1970s. But it could disappoint environmentalists who have pressured Northam and the DEQ to take a more aggressive stance toward policing energy companies and feel Paylor is too cozy with companies like Dominion Energy, the politically influential utility the DEQ deals with on a regular basis.
Paylor, who has served under Democratic and Republican governors, called the reappointment a “huge honor,” adding that his agency has made significant progress in reducing ozone and nitrogen concentrations in Virginia’s air and water.
“It’s just really gratifying to see the progress that we’ve made in so many different areas,” Paylor said. “And I’m just privileged to have been able to be a part of that.”
A member of Northam’s transition team who heads a conservation group said there was broad consensus among the environmental groups who supported his campaign for a shake-up in the DEQ leadership seen as too deferential to big business.
“They seem to go out of their way to avoid potential legal conflicts,” said the group’s leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential transition team talks. “We have an agency that always errs on the side of business.”
As Dominion has pushed to close its coal ash ponds, for example, environmental groups have noted that they were able to get the company to agree to stricter pollutant treatment limits for water discharged from the ponds than Paylor’s DEQ was comfortable imposing.
In a statement, the activist group Chesapeake Climate Action Network noted that Paylor accepted a Dominion-paid trip to the Masters golf tournament in 2013 and called for Northam to “replace Paylor as soon as possible.”
“He consistently sides with polluting industrial interests over harmed communities and the environment. And it’s been way past time for him to go,” said Mike Tidwell, CCAN’s founder and director.
Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, expressed similar concern.
“This decision shows the governor’s willingness to continue business as usual and allow corporate interests to be prioritized above the health of Virginians,” Addleson said.
Other conservation groups praised Paylor as a dedicated public servant.
“We’ve long appreciated his willingness to listen and engage in constructive dialogue, and we look forward to working with him and the rest of the Northam administration for the next four years,” said Nikki Rovner, associate state director of The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia chapter.
With his reappointment, Paylor will serve as DEQ’s director under a fourth straight governor. Then-Gov. Tim Kaine appointed him to the job in 2006, making Paylor the state’s top anti-pollution official and capping a career in state government that dates back to the 1970s.
The DEQ was created in 1993 by merging four agencies into a new entity with a comprehensive mission to protect Virginia’s natural resources.
Paylor and the DEQ have come under close scrutiny for issuing permits for the two pipeline projects, the Dominion-backed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Supporters of the pipelines have pitched them as an environmentally sound way to strengthen the mid-Atlantic region’s energy supply, but critics contend the DEQ has ignored warnings about the pipelines’ potential threats to streams, wetlands and drinking water.
Paylor has defended the DEQ’s actions, calling the regulatory process for the projects “the most rigorous for any pipeline in Virginia history.”
“The agency is committed to clean water and clean air,” Paylor said Monday. “And we operate within the authorities that we are given. And we try to work to fairly and completely carry out those authorities.”
In Southwest Virginia, opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline have been protesting by sitting in trees that lie in the pipeline’s path.
Richmond Times-Dispatch staff writer Robert Zullo contributed to this report.