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Certification rules for Virginia geologists, who help reduce environmental hazards, change

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Certification rules for Virginia geologists, who help reduce environmental hazards, change

Jun 13, 2024 | 5:32 am ET
By Charlie Paullin
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Certification rules for Virginia geologists, who help reduce environmental hazards, change
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The Board of Professional Soil Scientists, Wetland Professionals and Geologists discuss reductions to a geologists certification. (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury)

As part of a request from Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s agency for professional certifications has cut back regulations for geologists that workers in the field want to maintain. 

Tuesday, the Board of Professional Soil Scientists, Wetland Professionals, and Geologists approved the regulation reductions for a voluntary professional geologists certification under the directive of Youngkin’s Executive Order 19, designed to cut down  “discretionary” regulatory requirements for job certifications by 25%. 

Geologist certification

The term discretionary regulations refers to existing rules that go beyond what the law that created them dictates. 

The latest reductions came after the board  proposed changes in August as part of a Notice of Intended Regulatory Action, or NOIRA, that included a review by Youngkin’s office and administration, in addition to a public comment period that received no responses.

The changes to the geologist certification regulations were made as reductions for professional wetland delineators and several other certifications have been considered, with employees in those specialities voicing concern over a weakening of standards to perform duties well.

“The changes that have been made to the regulation for the most part eliminate redundancy,” said Drew Thomas, a geologist and the board’s chair, after the meeting. “If it’s in the [law] it doesn’t necessarily need to be repeated [in regulation]. That’s been the flavor of the changes to date.”

Geologists study the Earth’s materials and processes. In Virginia, the job requires a wide array of knowledge to address how landfills may be built that won’t leak fluids  into groundwater, and how railroad tracks should be constructed in more rocky terrain on a hillside.

“The last thing you want is a great big boulder rolling off …that squishes your car,” Thomas said.

After Youngkin’s office requested that specific science and geology education requirements be put back into the regulation, the board considered some final reductions at its meeting Tuesday that included removing a Geologist-in-Training certification requirement. Thomas pushed back against the change, saying that earning that specific distinction helps employees receive promotions in their field.

Another agency recommendation was to not allow geologists to place a stamped seal on development plans, but Michael Lawless, another board member and geologist, stated that landfill programs require the stamp on plans that contain siting criteria and geologic characteristics.

Board executive director Kate R. Nosbisch, who at first suggested the reduction, agreed to keep the seal language in after acknowledging that if geologists aren’t able to seal the plans an outside engineer has to be found to do so.

Another change the board approved was to remove detailed language on how a professional who has their certification revoked can re-apply for certification. Thomas said it might be helpful to spell out the process explicitly in the regulations, but Stephen Kirschner, deputy director for licensing and regulation, explained it’s rare to have that language detailed.

“The process is the same for everyone,” said Kirschner, with people being able to appeal their revocation or re-apply.

The board also agreed to remove multiple mentions of educational transcripts requirements, so that it states only one time that a transcript is needed.

“Makes sense to me,” Thomas said in the meeting.

The board was preparing to reduce 4% of discretionary regulations but that will likely “increase somewhat,” as a result of the final changes adopted Tuesday, said Joseph Haughwout, regulatory affairs manager at the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR). 

The executive order from Youngkin doesn’t detail what happens if the 25% target isn’t met. 

When asked about any consequences if regulation reductions fall short of that target, Youngkin press secretary Christian Martinez didn’t answer directly. 

”Before implementing any regulatory change, agencies must ensure that the benefits of the change outweigh the costs while also maintaining essential protections for public health, safety, and welfare,” Martinez wrote.

John Robertson, a spokesperson for the Department of Professional and Occupation Regulation, said board members are the subject matter experts in their fields and, “ensure that individuals practicing or seeking to practice these professions are sufficiently qualified…with as few barriers as possible for the protection of the public.”

Robertson also stressed that the regulatory revisions should be “discussed in full view of the public” to ensure that the process is “transparent and open to public feedback every step of the way.”

A failed 2023 bill from Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, sought to scrap regulation requirements for several voluntary professional certifications after DPOR said they weren’t necessary to protect public health and safety, a requirement of Virginia law in order to regulate a profession.

Several members of the professions that Stuart sought to deregulate — including geologists, interior designers and auctioneers — pushed back against the bill, saying that removing the certifications would hamper those industries’ ability to operate. 

This year, a bill from Del. Bill Wiley, R-Winchester, and Sen. Aaron Rouse, D-Virginia Beach, codified the definition of geologists in state law by stating the “practice of geology” includes working to “protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public and the environment.”

The Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists, of which Thomas is a member, said in a statement about this year’s bill passing, “We’re thankful that [the] governor acted favorably upon this legislation, and we’re incredibly grateful to our patrons…for their hard work on this issue.”

Wetlands delineators

Later in Tuesday’s meeting, professional wetland delineator Robin Bedenbaugh presented the scope of his work to the board. The role has a voluntary certification regulation that is also undergoing some reduction reviews proposed in April, similar to what the geologist certification just received. In one example, Bedenbaugh showed two sections of wetlands initially identified on a Richmond-area property during a dryer season that were later determined to be larger, after a second review, and had homes built on them.

In response to a developer’s question about what would happen to those homes, Bedenbaugh replied: “Well, there’s been no groundwater out there for the past three winters, but if we get to a normal, wetter year, their yards are going to have saturated soils and they’ll start getting mold in their crawl spaces. He wasn’t really happy to hear that.”

That situation demonstrates why experienced professional wetland delineators are crucial, said Bedenbaugh. “ We really care. We want to facilitate responsible development.”