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Virginia agency begins investigation into unauthorized cost-share funding approval

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Virginia agency begins investigation into unauthorized cost-share funding approval

Dec 07, 2023 | 12:04 am ET
By Charlie Paullin
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Virginia agency begins investigation into unauthorized cost-share funding approval
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A farm in King William County in April 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation is reviewing a local official’s approval of $2.1 million for pollution reduction projects that the agency says he didn’t have the authority to grant.

The Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board approved a motion Wednesday for DCR to begin the investigation into the Robert E. Lee Soil and Water Conservation District, which is based in the Appomattox area.

“It’s a difficult situation,” said board Chair Charles Newton.

A soil and water conservation district is a regional government entity that works to reduce pollution entering waterways. There are 47 across the state.

The districts are responsible for administering cost-share programs that farmers can use to install pollution reduction projects known as best management practices. The state has poured record amounts of funding into cost-share efforts over the past two years following revenue surpluses.

According to DCR, the state agency that oversees the conservation districts, in late November an employee noticed in the department’s tracking system that a project in the Robert E. Lee District had been approved for funding even though the district’s lone employee, John Wooldridge, had lost his authority to authorize funding awards in January.

In order for conservation district employees to approve funding for best management practices, Virginia rules require them to receive an Engineering Job Approval Authority (EJAA) certification, which must be reviewed every three years.

According to DCR, the agency found major errors during Wooldridge’s last review and consequently stripped him of his EJAA authority to approve design and construction reviews, although the agency allowed him to conduct investigations and evaluations. Projects in the district that wished to receive cost-share funding subsequently needed to obtain approval from DCR’s engineering program.

DCR said Wooldridge had passed on a funding request for a project to DCR’s program in October, but in November, when DCR told him that the review was nearly complete, the district had already issued the payment for it.

The payment that triggered the review was about $90,000, but records from DCR show that the district had actually issued payments for two other projects totaling $260,000 since Wooldridge lost his EJAA authority. Combined with 19 other projects that were approved for funding but haven’t received payments yet, the amount in question could total about $2.1 million.

DCR has said the outstanding projects will need to have their engineering plans reviewed by the agency. After the review, any projects that have received payment but failed to meet state guidelines will become the financial responsibility of the district.

The agency is encouraging any projects in the district that are currently under construction to halt until the engineering design can be approved by the department., and DCR said any practice that does continue construction will be the financial responsibility of the district and ineligible for cost-share programs.

The issue, DCR Policy and District Services Manager Christine Watlington told the state board, is that approving projects without proper engineering review could lead to structural issues that will require more costly upgrades at a later date.

“It’s totally possible that some of these practices have approved design,” she said. “It’s also totally possible that they don’t.”

There have been questions about mileage reimbursements the Robert E. Lee District has sought before, Watlington told the Mercury following the meeting after Jay Ford, Virginia policy director with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, had asked why the state hadn’t devoted more resources to overseeing the district in light of prior issues.

Watlington told Ford there was concern about the strain that would have put on DCR’s resources, which are needed across the entire state.

“I just want to feel comfortable that we’re looking under the hood appropriately,” Ford replied. “I think we are.”

The Soil and Water Conservation Board also voted Wednesday to require the Robert E. Lee District to seek written approval from DCR for all payment requests. The goal is to present more information to the board at its next meeting in March, said officials.

“What we’re proposing here is to deal with the issue in front of us now, learn anything further, come back in March,” said DCR Director Matt Wells.

Wooldridge did not return a request for comment.