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Advocates are calling on the next governor to focus on environmental justice

People fish
People fish along the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia’s next governor will have a range of commitments and goals to meet on clean energy, water quality and more.

Among those is a long-standing commitment to clean up pollution that makes its way into the Chesapeake Bay from the Old Dominion. By a 2025 deadline, set by member states including Maryland and Virginia and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, Virginia must implement all of the programs needed to do that. The next governor will be in office until 2026.

Peggy Sanner of the non-profit Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia branch says the state has many of the needed programs in place — which makes for an enormous opportunity for the next executive.

“An opportunity to do something that would of course create some bragging rights, but more meaningfully create a real legacy for the next governor,” Sanner said.

Sanner says the current state budget surplus, along with money from the American Rescue Plan, gives the next governor a chance to bring Virginia across the finish line — protecting the Bay’s environmental, cultural and economic benefits.

Recently, Virginia lawmakers added a definition of ‘environmental justice’ to state law. However, advocates like Gustavo Angeles want to see “action, not words,” especially when it comes to permitting decisions from the Department of Environmental Quality.

Angeles, who directs the environmental justice program at Sierra Club Virginia, spends much of his time working with people who could be impacted by projects with potential to pollute.

He said that might sound like this: “‘Hey, they’re gonna put a gas power plant nearby your house, do you know about it?’ ‘No, we didn’t.’ ‘Okay, well, how do you feel?’”

Angeles says the permitting process is far more accessible to developers and companies than it is to concerned residents. Specifically, he feels a clause requiring “meaningful involvement” of every impacted person throughout the “full cycle” of decision-making is not being upheld.

Angeles hopes the next governor takes that involvement more seriously; they’ll have the power to appoint DEQ’s next director. DEQ’s current director has been in the role since 2006.

Sanner says making the bureaucracy work better for citizens won’t be easy.

“It’s what I imagine it’d be like trying to change the direction of an aircraft carrier,” she said.

Campaigns for Republican Glenn Youngkin, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Liberation Party candidate Princess Blanding did not answer questions on bay protections and environmental justice, though McAuliffe’s campaign did highlight commitments to a just energy transition. McAuliffe’s campaign website also contains a fairly detailed climate plan that commits to ending Virginia’s dependence on fossil fuels 10 years ahead of the schedule currently required by state law.

Youngkin has criticized the state’s plan to phase in clean energy, saying it would raise electric bills, but hasn’t elaborated on climate change policy.

Blanding’s environmental platform is focused on justice. She proposes requiring studies on Indigenous sovereignty and racial impact before approving environmental projects.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.