To the Virginia State Water Control Board:
Food & Water Watch (FWW) is a national climate organization with around a million members nationwide and 28,000 members in Virginia. On behalf of FWW and our members, I am writing to provide input on how the Department of Environmental Quality’s public participation process can work for all Virginians in the Commonwealth.
To ensure future regulatory processes are fair and just, the Department of Environmental Quality and its State Boards—which will be collectively referenced as DEQ throughout this comment—must increase accessibility, prioritize environmental justice, and execute robust community outreach.
To increase accessibility, DEQ meetings must be held at times and locations most convenient for the affected community. For example hosting informational meetings after standard work hours and locations easily accessible by public transportation and/or utilize a remote in-person hybrid participation option. In addition, DEQ must ensure meeting notices and content are language accessible to the affected community like distributing flyers in multiple languages, posting information in non-English newspapers, and offering live translation of educational events and public hearings as well as providing translations of technical materials upon request. All public participation regulations should also clearly and uniformly state the length of public comment periods, steps to extend the public comment process, and ways to request a public hearing. Additionally, a notice of a public hearing should be advertised for at least 15 days prior instead of the current requirement of seven days.
To prioritize environmental justice, DEQ should maintain a list of environmental justice (EJ) communities and be in regular contact with EJ leaders who are most impacted by regulatory decisions. When there are new projects and/or permit applications submitted to DEQ, DEQ must promptly identify nearby EJ communities and follow the Commonwealth’s EJ laws to ensure these communities receive additional outreach steps and longer time frames to participate in the public process. DEQ must ensure EJ specialists sit on all regulatory advisory panels and provide clear and transparent information about how EJ communities input will be weighed. DEQ also needs to provide a public, detailed outreach plan that answers these questions:
How will the DEQ fulfill the requirement for engagement and fully implement EJ into their outreach?
How will DEQ develop procedures and guidance for their staff on robust community engagement?
Will DEQ create an implementation plan outlining how EJ communities can be meaningfully engaged on the rule making and regulations determined by citizen advisory boards?
To execute robust community outreach, DEQ must announce meeting and educational event notifications through social media posts and text notifications in addition to the DEQ website. DEQ should create a public outreach program for underrepresented and impacted communities to ensure meaningful public engagement as well as to coordinate long-term public engagement processes. DEQ should fund, support and run educational opportunities that are language accessible as well as at a time and location most convenient to the local community. DEQ should also have community outreach specialists that sit on all regulatory advisory panels.
Through these recommendations we believe DEQ’s public outreach efforts will more effectively serve the public interests and prioritize the interests of all Virginians including vulnerable and EJ communities.
Food & Water Watch