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Virginia air board member wants continued environmental justice focus

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Virginia air board member wants continued environmental justice focus

Jun 11, 2024 | 5:49 am ET
By Charlie Paullin
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Virginia air board member wants continued environmental justice focus
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(Illustration by States Newsroom)

An outgoing member of the State Air Pollution Control Board — whose repeated attempts to raise awareness about environmental justice concerns helped halt the construction of a Mountain Valley Pipeline compressor station in Pittsylvania County — called for her successor, who will be appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, to maintain a keen focus on how energy projects can disproportionately impact communities in Virginia. 

Once an incoming board member begins in their new role, the air board will consist of a full slate of appointees selected by Youngkin, whose administration’s handling of environmental justice policy has been scrutinized by advocates and lawmakers.

Virginia air board member wants continued environmental justice focus
Acting Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Travis Voyles presents to the state Air Pollution Control Board. (Charlie Paullin/ Virginia Mercury).

Hope Cupit said at the air board meeting last Wednesday she felt a need to express “a profound concern that I hope will resonate with all of you.”

“Environmental justice is not merely a catch phrase,” Cupit continued. “It is a fundamental principle that will guide us in ensuring communities, especially those historically marginalized, have a voice in decisions that affect their health and well-being.” 

Abbreviated as EJ, environmental justice is defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the “just treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of income, race, color, national origin, Tribal affiliation, or disability, in agency decision-making and other Federal activities that affect human health and the environment.” The Virginia Environmental Justice Act, passed in 2020, seeks “to promote environmental justice and ensure that it is carried out throughout the commonwealth.”

Environmental justice became more of a focal point of Virginia regulations after a controversial permit for the Chickahominy Power Station in Charles City County was approved by the air board, leading to strong community opposition and the creation of a public engagement committee in 2019. The power station was canceled in the wake of the outcry; the public engagement committee, which the Virginia Manufacturers Association previously said led to costly delays for project approvals, discontinued activity in 2022 under the direction of air board chairman James Patrick Guy, a Youngkin appointee who still chairs the board. The air board is tasked with reviewing regulation requests for everything from carbon markets and vehicle emission standards, to permits for power plants, in order to monitor and control emissions that pollute the environment. 

In several parts of the state, other projects have faced setbacks and scrutiny for how they could disproportionately impact the environment and quality of life in communities of color.

In January 2020, the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals 4th Circuit overturned an air permit for the now-canceled natural gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s pollution-emitting compressor station, which would have been sited in the predominantly Black community of Union Hill in Buckingham County, citing a lack of environmental justice consideration.

In 2021, Mountain Valley Pipeline developers couldn’t obtain an air permit from the Department of Environmental Quality for a planned compressor station in Pittsylvania County’s Lambert, after the air board pointed out DEQ considered Lambert an environmental justice community which could be disproportionately impacted by the compressor.  

Cupit, as well as board member Lornel Tompkins, whose term will also expire June 30, advocated for more state consideration of the people who lived nearest the proposed compressor. They referenced DEQ’s analysis that found 32% of those living within one mile of the compressor station would be Black — although Black people comprise just 20% of the state’s population. The same report said 31% of residents within five miles of the site were low-income. 

Following that decision, a 2022 law moved approval of air permits to the DEQ agency level, which provides greater administrative control over requests than the more public, citizen-compromised air board, unless they are deemed controversial.

“The presence of an environmental justice advocate on this board has been crucial in bringing these issues to the forefront,” Cupit said Wednesday. “My role is to amplify the voices of those who are often ignored.”

Board chair Guy said Cupit and Tompkins have “given stellar service,” while being “very attentive with a great deal of integrity.” He thanked the women for their service to the state and also said it’s “safe to assume” Cupit’s replacement would be seated by the next board meeting.

A DEQ spokesperson said the next air board meeting hasn’t been scheduled yet, but they are typically held quarterly.

Democratic legislators and environmental groups have criticized Youngkin’s commitment to environmental justice after he announced his appointments to the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, which was created by the Environmental Justice Act. The governor’s appointments came after long-running vacancies on the council, which members said stymied their work, and after he vetoed a bill by Del. Mike Jones, D-Richmond, that would have required him to fill the vacancies by August. Youngkin’s board picks were affiliated with the waste, labor, infrastructure, fossil fuel and electric industries.

Democratic legislator questions Youngkin’s appointments to environmental justice council

“They’re not terrible people; it’s just, where are they going to be as it relates to environmental justice?” Jones said about Youngkin’s appointees in a previous interview with the Mercury. “We have to get people who understand the challenges faced by communities that for such a long time [have] been negatively impacted by a lot of the decisions that have been made by the energy community.”

In response to Jones’ concerns, Youngkin spokesperson Christian Martinez previously said “the Governor’s appointments reflect a variety of communities and stakeholders across Virginia who are committed to furthering Governor Youngkin’s efforts to protect our natural resources and vulnerable communities throughout the Commonwealth.”

Lee Francis, deputy director for the League of Conservation Voters, said Youngkin’s administration “hasn’t shown that it takes environmental justice seriously at all.”

“I’m not holding my breath … that [a Youngkin appointee] doesn’t represent an industry they’re supposed to regulate, because that has been the trend.”