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The Legislative Effort to Make Environmental Justice Part of Virginia's Code

When the General Assembly passed the Virginia Environmental Justice act last year, it also created an Interagency Environmental Justice Working group to coordinate state agencies. But it was only created through the budget, so this year delegates sponsored a bill to put the group into the Code of Virginia.

The bill from Delegates Shelley Simonds (D-Newport News) and Mark Keam (D-Fairfax) would continue that council’s role, advising the governor and coordinating state agencies, in a more permanent way. It would also require certain cabinet secretaries to develop their own environmental justice policies by 2022. 

Environmental justice considers how the environmental benefits of policy are shared, and how the environmental burdens of policy and development are borne. For example, a highway creating pollution might pass through a low income neighborhood or a historically black town. Pollution from industry is often cited in discussions of environmental justice.

“The thing that I'm most excited about is just how this bill really embeds environmental justice thinking into the framework of government planning at the local level, and also at the state level,” said Simonds. “So that when major projects are done the community is considered and they're going to know what to expect and know how they're going to benefit and really at the end of the day.”

The bill also includes a provision that the working group focuses on “assessing current air quality monitoring practices” in its first year.

“Air quality is a really big deal for us in Newport news, in the Tidewater [and] Hampton roads area in general,” Simonds said. “We've got a lot of legacy communities, fenceline communities living close to large industrial areas.”

The bill allows local governments to make their own environmental justice plans. Many localities told the Commission on Local Government they could integrate this plan into their existing permitting process at little or no cost. Others said hiring consultants or project delays could cost up to $250,000. 

“We're trying to create structures within state government to further the general policy of environmental justice that was part of last year's legislation.” said Steve Fischbach of the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

Last year the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice was made permanent. That’s a separate group that advises the governor, and doesn’t have the coordinating role of the interagency workgroup. 


This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.