By Jessica Sims and Stacy Lovelace
Sims is from Richmond. Lovelace is from Midloathian. Both are environmental activists, avid canoeists and hikers.
In a disturbing turn of events, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) recently decided to shut out the public from further review of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
In December, the State Water Control Board (SWCB) voted to delay certification of this highly contentious fracked-gas pipeline until Dominion submitted complete plans on how it intends to control erosion and sediment, stormwater runoff, and impacts to karst. The board came to this decision after hearing concerns from hundreds of Virginia residents, scientists, landowners and water experts and reviewing the multitude of risks that the pipeline would bring.
The Board members made one thing very clear: after Dominion submitted its new plans, they intended the public to have further opportunities for review.
But now, DEQ has come out with a statement that "no additional information is being accepted from the public
The matter is before the board at its discretion without additional public comment on whether further action is warranted."
In other words, the DEQ has brazenly decided that the public should have no say after the new plans are reviewed by the agency, no matter how incomplete or concerning they may be. How is it now possible that the DEQ can usurp the intent of the SWCB and eliminate the public from the process?
The DEQ has persisted in its effort to circumvent fair and open analysis, siding again and again with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline's primary stakeholder, Dominion Energy. At the December hearings, DEQ's Water Permitting Division Director explained that the DEQ had attended two years of meetings to help get the projects "approved." The DEQ's review of the pipelines was rushed and flawed. They pressured the State Water Control Board to approve the pipelines without significant amounts of information. The SWCB vote to delay approval until this information was received and reviewed by DEQ was an effort to push back against DEQ's irresponsible rush to approval. The public can and should interpret DEQ's actions as evidence of the fact that the projects were always on a path to approval no matter how inadequate the certification plans. Water safety has not been its ultimate concern.
This whole process reinforces the notion throughout Virginia that the DEQ will stop at nothing to kowtow to the corporate interests of utility companies. Perhaps annoyed that there has been significant resistance to the projects, the DEQ has decided to halt the public process. Countless Virginians would have their water impacted by these projects that would snake across 1,000 miles of our state and over, through and beneath more than 1,000 waterways. Even with this unprecedented potential impact on millions of Virginians, the public is relegated to background status.
The announcement that the public would not be able to weigh in came on former Governor Terry McAuliffe's last day in office. McAuliffe, who left office claiming to be a leader on climate change but conveniently omitted the devastating impacts of these fracked-gas pipelines, perhaps influenced by Dominion campaign donations, appointed DEQ Director Paylor for his term. Paylor has held a close relationship to Dominion Energy, complete with thousand-dollar dinners and a complimentary trip to the Masters Tournament in 2013 - on Dominion's tab. Now, as head of DEQ, Paylor has created a rushed and incomplete review process for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline - and the similarly disastrous Mountain Valley Pipeline - that virtually guaranteed approval.
The DEQ's oversight of these ruinous, unnecessary fracked-gas pipelines will be a lasting memory. Approval for these pipelines will be a permanent stain on the legacy of both McAuliffe and the agency. Our new Governor, Ralph Northam, has the opportunity in this moment to demonstrate how he will lead Virginia for the next four years. Will he continue McAuliffe's legacy of catering to campaign-financing corporations who put profit over people, or will he stand up for Virginians and our water? Our new governor should break from his predecessor, appoint a new DEQ director, and oppose the pipelines.
In the meantime, DEQ must provide opportunities for public engagement when Dominion provides the information requested in December. Anything less would be antithetical to our democracy.
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