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Bills stripping pollution permitting power from citizen boards advance, find bipartisan support

Person speaking into microphone
Crixell Matthews
Sen. Richard Stuart (R-King George) speaks at a Stafford County campaign event for Gov. Glenn Youngkin in October. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

On Tuesday, the House of Delegates voted to change how public state boards tasked with controlling pollution and adopting state emissions regulations are appointed and what they can act on.

HB 1261, brought by Del. Rob Bloxom (R-Accomack), would remove permitting power from the state’s Water Control and Air Pollution Control boards. They oversee controversial pollution permits that require careful consideration and public input. They also get the final say on regulations like Virginia’s new clean car standards.

Bloxom’s bill would shift that permitting power to the boards’ parent agency, the state Department of Environmental Quality. It would also take some appointment power from the governor and give it to the General Assembly. The bill passed the House of Delegates on party lines. That means it’s on shaky footing as it heads to the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority.

But the Senate’s version of the bill, brought by Sen. Richard Stuart (R-King William) and passed 32-8 on Monday, may have a better shot of being accepted by both chambers.

“We now have what I would call an activist air board,” Stuart said in a committee meeting last week. He specifically pointed to a decision by the air board to deny a permit late last year for the Lambert Compressor Station, which would have served an extension of the oft-challenged Mountain Valley Pipeline.

It was an unusual move for any of the citizen boards, which traditionally vote in favor of permits that DEQ recommends to them. The Virginia Mercury reported that a review of meeting minutes since 2002 found only four instances where any of the citizen boards bucked DEQ recommendations.

For instance, less than two weeks after the Lambert decision, the Water Control Board chose to accept DEQ’s recommendation for a MVP stream crossing permit, a previous version of which had been revoked due to hundreds of documented issues with pollution controls.

Sen. T. Montgomery Mason (D-Williamsburg) worked on a significant rewrite of the Senate bill with lawmakers and advocates. He says it’s “important to note what it does not do.”

The new language still hands permitting power over to DEQ but protects the boards’ regulatory authority - something Stuart’s original proposal weakened - and guarantees that the public comment periods and forums available in board permitting decisions will remain. The changes have been received favorably by some environmental groups.

But the legislation is still controversial. Advocates have argued that the boards are essential steps for public input on these issues, particularly in permitting emissions.

Peter Anderson heads policy work in Virginia for Appalachian Voices, a group that often engages with the state air and water control boards. They organize advocacy against fossil fuel projects and are one of several organizations with a presence at most board meetings.

Anderson is clear that, despite the Senate reducing the bill’s scope and writing public comment measures back in, this is not a piece of legislation his organization is on board with. He’s concerned that businesses will have more access to DEQ than the public.

“We need somebody sort of with independence to take a step back and say, ‘Well, this is really controversial, should the permit even be issued?’” Anderson said. “And I don’t think DEQ’s gonna be in a good position to do that.”

The nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation expressed similar concerns.

Still, business groups like the Agribusiness Council and Virginia Manufacturers Association favor the change, saying it’s not just about a rejected permit. They argue the current process is drawn out, expensive and risky.

Bloxom summed it up in a subcommittee meeting this session: “For business, they just want to know what the rules are and how to get a permit. And I think that the citizens' boards have become a stumbling block.”

At the same meeting, Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax) warned against moving away from the citizen boards, citing concerns with public input. In a later interview with VPM, Plum said he sees nothing wrong with the boards as they are.

“I think in the most recent years, we've had a pretty good balance between looking at the science of regulation as well as looking at the community interest in regulation,” Plum said.

He added that, as Virginia expands existing and new industries like manufacturing and clean energy, the public, independent nature of the boards could be particularly useful in avoiding pollution.

“I think the current bills tip that balance in favor of the affected industries. And I don't think that's healthy for the citizenry,” Plum said.

Both Bloxom and Stuart’s bills will be heard and adjusted to match each other in the coming weeks before being subject to final votes.

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