In the decades since its creation in the 1970s, the state Department of Environmental Quality 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along with a myriad of regional and local environmental matters, with inadequate funding, insufficient staff and outdated regulations and guidelines, hampering how effective it can be at this critical time for the environment.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 years, the agency, which employees about 760 people at its Richmond headquarters and six regional offices, has lost about 10 percent of its workforce.
In the just-concluded biennial budget, DEQ received state funding that was $37 million less than 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.
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 Regulations, environmental critics contend, are out of date and ill-suited to the challenges faced in 2019 and beyond, while business and development interests experience slow response times to permit requests because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.
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.
For the environment, Election Day 2019 will be critical.