If you were to ask the average Virginian what the state Department of Environmental Quality does, you would probably get a generalized response mentioning the generic terms of clean water and air and fighting pollution. Or, more likely, the reply might be along the lines of “Isn’t there some agency in Washington that does that — why do we need something like that in Virginia?”
The Virginia DEQ dates back to the 1970s and early heydays of the environmental movement. President Richard Nixon had created the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and many states were following Washington’s lead by creating their own state agencies with similar mandates. Images of polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire in 1969 were fresh in the public’s mind, and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was one of the most important books of the last half of the 20th century.
In the decades since its creation, the DEQ has been assigned more and more responsibilities by successive governors and the General Assembly. Today, it’s the lead state agency monitoring the construction of the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines and has oversight of Virginia’s work in the ongoing, multi-state cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s also the state agency in charge of Virginia’s response to the climate change crisis, a matter of grave concern to the Hampton Roads and Tidewater regions of Virginia.
But the agency is dealing with these high-profile issues, along with a myriad of regional and local environmental matters, with inadequate funding, too small of a staff and outdated regulations and guidelines, hampering how effective it can be at this critical time for the environment.
That’s according to a report released last month by Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler, coming on the orders of Gov. Ralph Northam in April 2018 for a study of the DEQ’s structure and effectiveness.
According to Strickler’s report, the DEQ’s downward slide dates back almost two decades to the economic downturns precipitated by the bursting of the dot-com stock market bubble in 2000 and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the succeeding 18 years, the agency, which employees about 760 people at its Richmond headquarters and six regional offices, has lost about 10 percent of its workforce or 74 jobs. In the just-concluded biennial budget, DEQ received state funding that was $37 million less that what it received in 2001. As a result, the percentage of agency operations supported by Virginia tax dollars has been cut in half, dropping from 40 percent to 20 percent. The agency, thus, depends more and more on permitting fees and federal dollars to fund its operations, even though DEQ mission is to protect the public’s interest.
In his report to Gov. Northam, Strickler noted that 18 years of funding cuts and staff reductions have adversely affected “the Commonwealth’s capacity to monitor and reduce pollution, develop or update critical environmental regulations, process permits, and engage with the public.” Regulations, environmental critics contend, are out of date and ill-suited to the challenges faced in 2019 and beyond, while business and development interests experience slow response times to permit requests because of staffing issues. And the public at large is generally unaware of the DEQ’s existence, much less its mission and importance.
The increased importance of the role the DEQ is evident with the high-profile natural gas pipeline projects currently under construction — the Mountain Valley in Southwest and Southside Virginia and the Atlantic Coast in Northwest and Central Virginia. The Roanoke Times, for example, reports DEQ staffers and agency contractors have investigated 249 complaints against the Mountain Valley Pipeline as of mid-August. Also, as the Trump administration rolls back many environmental regulations at the federal level, state officials increasingly are looking to the DEQ to hew to tougher standards enacted in Virginia. This agency role takes on added importance in the matter of the climate crisis: Virginia has no statewide plan of action to cope with global warming, a critical matter Strickler says should be addressed immediately.
Revamping and rejuvenating the DEQ, though, is dependent on General Assembly action. This November, all 140 seats in the legislature are up for grabs, and in many close races, environmental concerns could tip the outcome. The Northam administration is still working on detailed cost estimates and mapping regulatory actions, but it will be the new Assembly that will have the responsibility to craft the final legislative and funding package.
For the environment, Election Day 2019 will be critical.