To Director Paylor, the Chairs of the Air, Water, and Waste Boards, and every member of the public comment process review,
Thank you for taking the time to review the process that you use to enable the public to comment on environmental permitting. This review--and the changes that I hope you choose to make, has been desperately needed to ensure democratic transparency of our permit process, and to ensure environmental justice--something that continues to escape us still in Virginia’s regulatory environment. I write with personal experience regarding the problems with our current system. In the winter and early spring of 2019, I was one of a very small number of people who were aware that Chickahominy Power was seeking permits to build one of the nation’s largest merchant gas plants in Charles City County--a majority-minority rural county 30 miles to the east of my own home, in Henrico. I was alarmed at the projected emissions related to this project, so I dutifully submitted a comment and encouraged some friends and neighbors to do so as well. I’d only learned of the project because a friend of mine with deep connections to the environmental community told me personally. It wasn’t shared widely (or really, at all) online, in the news, or spoken about in public forums. I have the advantage of having access to all those resources and try to stay on top of local environmental issues, but this massive project was clearly--intentionally, I think--flying under the radar.
In June of 2019, I was disgusted to learn that the residents of Charles City--even folks who lived on the same street as the proposed project, were completely unaware of the permitting process, or the threat it might pose to their homes and safety. I helped put together an information session at the Charles City County library, and NONE of the 35 residents who attended this discussion session on June 19, 2019, had heard of the plant until myself and a handful of other concerned volunteers had reached out to them by mail or phone. I found it very easy to contact folks who might be concerned--as a volunteer, I googled churches in the vicinity, found their addresses, and sent them information from the DEQ site. Many of the individuals I wrote to followed up with me. In particular, African American church leaders were desperately worried about what they heard, because they were already dealing with a history of cumulative impacts, there were high cancer rates in the county which they believed were linked to the Waste Management landfill (another DEQ approved facility) that was just a couple miles from the proposed gas plant. And now, without consultation from their state officials or local leadership, they were being told that two gas plants were in the permit queue in their community.
Because these Charles City residents didn’t learn about the plant until two days before the Air Board Hearing (where the gas plant was, ultimately, fully permitted) this meant that--by DEQ policy, which seemed to be a bit fuzzy, but insisted upon at the request of the applicant, despite petitions asking for delay--NONE of the Charles City County residents were permitted to participate in the comment process. Only one resident from the county was able to comment at the Air Board Hearing. The applicant openly acknowledged that when Chickahominy Power had done outreach, they went to the “plantations” (there was apparently a picnic held among the wealthiest in the county at Shirley Plantation). County residents were outraged that they could receive direct information about other county “news,” such as the parade, but not outreach related to something as significant as a massive gas plant. It was particularly disappointing that the outreach so clearly and deliberately overlooked African American residents in the community. After spending two additional years working with residents of Charles City County, I have yet to meet an African American from Charles City County (who did not work in County government) that was aware of the plants before the permit was issued.
I continue to feel outraged at the ways that the permitting process “works” in Virginia. One thing that particularly frustrates me is that, even when tremendous efforts are made by impacted citizens to comment, their communications are largely ignored. After a year of public advocacy led by Concerned Citizens of Charles City County, 1,199 individuals commented or participated in the public hearing on the “Special Exception” for water to supply the Chickahominy gas plant. A significant number of these comments came from Charles City residents. “Only the applicant and two others provided comments in support of this draft groundwater withdrawal special exception,” according to the DEQ. Nevertheless, the Water Control Board unanimously supported the application--it wasn’t clear that the 1,199 comments were taken seriously.
That dismissive process made it clear to me that, even if we improve the participation process, it is essential that the Boards actually LISTEN to the comments of impacted residents, otherwise these efforts for reform are simply for show. There needs to be more transparency and respect shown to impacted communities, and the Boards should give local concerns vastly more weight in their decisions than they have heretofor done. I have asked repeatedly, but I still haven’t heard of a single case where the DEQ denied a powerful applicant their permit, no matter the number of comments opposing one. That data (numbers of polluting permits requested vs. permits denied) needs to be publicly available, as evidence to show whether the DEQ is merely a “permitting body” ready to rubber stamp any application if it’s backed by powerful business interests, or if it’s really an organization that appropriately weighs community concerns related to pollution and makes fair decisions. Furthermore, in order to make these permitting groups more responsive to public concerns, the Boards should always include members of EJ communities who have worked to pursue environmental justice in Virginia broadly.
Improving the process is absolutely necessary. I believe that the DEQ and all of the Boards should make more time and space for community participation, and particularly address the inequities in terms of who gets the most time and attention from permit reviewers. Currently, it’s clear that applicants (wealthy polluters) have an inside track--we need to revamp our system so citizens’ voices are at the forefront. This will require that each polluting permit require multiple meetings, with translation services and support for folks needing transportation or technical support. The DEQ and Boards should hold these meetings both online and in-person, and at times that work for a variety of work and family schedules. It is inadequate to dismiss these steps as “too expensive” -- these steps are essential to enable residents to weigh in on decisions that will forever impact their communities.
There needs to be vastly more outreach, led by a diverse, community-facing outreach staff member or committee, to ensure that residents ARE aware when major polluting industries seek permits in their communities. People are busy, but they do of course care about their health and safety. Applicants should be required to inform residents through social media, calls or letters to community institutions (for instance, letters should have been sent to all of the churches in the vicinity of the facility by Chickahominy, not by me, a random volunteer!) The approach of the DEQ and the state of Virginia needs to be transformed to prioritize open and engaged communication between all of our citizens--and they need to communicate with state leaders -- you-- knowing that their concerns and priorities are reflected in state decision making.
Thank you, Beth Kreydatus, Associate Professor of Focused Inquiry at VCU