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Northam signs executive order on environmental protections: Window dressing?

ralph northamGov. Ralph Northam today signed Executive Order 6, which instructs the Department of Environmental Quality to update outdated regulations, strengthen enforcement of Virginia’s environmental standards, identify the causes of permitting delays, and improve transparency.

“I am proud to take executive action to safeguard Virginia’s environment and improve the quality of life of all Virginians,” said Northam. “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. This executive order will strengthen DEQ and give the public servants who work there greater ability to protect public health and our natural resources while empowering Virginia’s good corporate stewards and promoting a vibrant economy.”

The order requires DEQ, in consultation with the Secretary of Natural Resources, to perform a comprehensive review of DEQ’s permitting, monitoring, and enforcement activities across all program areas and provide a full report to Governor Northam by April 30, 2019.

The executive action also requires DEQ to ensure that any proposed federal actions do not affect DEQ’s existing authority to protect public health, drinking water supplies, and the environment.

Support for Northam on environment

The press release from the governor’s office included quotes from leaders of environmental, health and business organizations offering support for the move.

“After making progress in many areas during DEQ’s first 25 years, it is very timely to ensure that DEQ has the authority, programs and resources it needs to address all of the challenges facing Virginia’s natural resources today and in the future,” said Bill Street, CEO of the James River Association. “Governor Northam has committed to making the environment a top tier priority, and the James River Association supports him in undertaking this important assessment to ensure the future of Virginia’s air, water and land resources.”

“The American Lung Association welcomes Governor Northam’s executive order recognizing the important role that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality must play in reducing air pollution to save lives and protect Virginians’ health. Attempts to roll back federal protections are occurring at an alarming rate, and strong state leadership is urgently needed to safeguard public health and the environment,” said Deborah Brown, Chief Mission Officer of the American Lung Association.

“Clean water, air, and recreational lands are critical to achieving a high quality of life in the Commonwealth and our recommendations in Blueprint Virginia 2025 reflect this belief,” said Barry DuVal, President of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “The Virginia Chamber of Commerce looks forward to working with the Secretary of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Quality and other stakeholders in a proactive way to accomplish the environmental goals of Blueprint Virginia 2025 and ensure continued economic responsibility in the development of environmental regulations and guidelines.”

“True to his word, Governor Northam is showing a solid commitment to protect Virginians’ health from pollution of our air, water and land. His order will strengthen the Department of Environmental Quality’s ability to safeguard and enhance Virginians’ lives in a transparent way that’s good for everyone, and we applaud the Governor in his efforts,” said Walton Shepherd, Virginia Policy Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“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 that threaten clean air, water resources, and open spaces. Governor Northam’s executive order to strengthen his Department of Environmental Quality is a good first step in protecting our water, air and land from harmful pollution,” said Michael Town, Executive Director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

The critics

Not all the response has been as positive.

Mike Tidwell, Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said that while his organization agrees that the DEQ needs to be reformed, “we are highly skeptical that DEQ Director David Paylor can oversee this internal review in a fair and comprehensive manner.”

“The DEQ is a broken agency, and Director David Paylor is the one that broke it,” Tidwell said. “In his 12 years running the agency, he has regularly sided with polluters over the environment. He has accepted gifts from mega-polluter Dominion Energy and permitted polluter-friendly practices across the Commonwealth.

“The timing of this announcement is particularly painful for the landowners who live along the route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline for fracked gas, to which DEQ just gave final approval in a process widely viewed as flawed.

“We believe David Paylor should be replaced as DEQ Director. If Governor Northam keeps him on, however, Paylor should recuse himself from this much-needed agency review. We hope Governor Northam will consider turning the review over completely to the Secretary of Natural Resources in order to ensure real and substantive changes at the DEQ.”

Kate Addleson, Director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, noted similar concerns about Paylor.

“We support the Governor’s desire to improve DEQ’s poor record of performance. The Administration’s initiative to evaluate, clarify and improve our environmental agency’s effectiveness and transparency is welcome. However, it is critical that the ordered reviews supplement, not delay, immediate improvements to DEQ operations,” Addleson said.

More from Addleson:

“For years, Virginia residents have expressed concerns about lax permitting and enforcement at DEQ under the leadership of Director David Paylor. The recent approval of inadequate plans for the Mountain Valley Pipeline and Governor Northam’s reappointment of Paylor as the Director of the DEQ directly undercut the Governor’s expressed intention to create the substantive change Virginians need.

“Virginians are suffering environmental consequences now, and undertaking a lengthy review will result in further delayed action, which won’t help those in the path of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, or in the shadow of polluting facilities.

“Opportunities for improvement are already evident. DEQ has not clearly communicated permitting and environmental review processes to Virginians, and there is a preponderance of evidence that policies put forth by the Pruitt-Trump EPA are polluter-first and environmentally destructive.”

Asking for reviews of DEQ activities is not the same as presenting concrete solutions or guaranteeing changes that will better protect our air, water and public health.


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