Bill to strip state environmental boards of permitting authority is a big mistake

By Shelton Miles

There aren’t many green people in my part of the Commonwealth, but there are plenty of anglers, canoeists, boaters and shoreline property owners who see the citizen members of the State Water Control Board as the forum for a fair hearing and the guarantee of a minimal environment. protections that the Environmental Quality Department has sometimes been unwilling to provide.

that’s why Senate Bill 657which would deprive the Water Board and the National Air Pollution Control Board of their authorization powers, is a mistake.

I have dealt with the State Water Control Board since the late 1980’s in many capacities, first as President of the Waterfront Property Owners Association along the Staunton River in Campbell, Charlotte, Halifax counties and Pittsylvania, where our citizens have repeatedly generated record turnouts at Water Board hearings.

I have also been a member of several technical advisory committees that have been involved in the development of regulations and other matters that eventually came before the board.

During those years, from the late 1980s to 2004, I argued cases before the board, sought relief from the board, and on one occasion sued the board.

Senate panel introduces bill to remove environmental licensing power from Citizens Councils

Then, from 2004 to 2012, I had the honor of being a member of the board of directors, and from 2006 to 2012, president. The last time significant legislative changes were made to the boards, I was intimately involved in those deliberations and their drafting.

I therefore speak from a long experience when I testify to the value of citizens’ councils and the need for them to have broad powers, not only to enact regulations, but also to issue permits and enforcement measures. .

The councils serve as checks on the power of a large bureaucracy. They are there as protectors of licensees and the public. Several times in my experience, I have been party to the board and its licensing process offering protection or relief to a licensee that the ministry was unwilling to grant. I know of a number of specific cases where the bureaucratic intransigence of the DEQ worked against a permittee:

• In one case, the public permitting process and citizen participation produced a more protective outcome for the holder(s) with better results for the environment as well.

• In another case, I was the hearing officer in a misguided licensing action imposed by bureaucracy on a small business. My intervention resulted in the abandonment of the action with a net gain for the environment.

• In a third case, an applicant for a permit to dredge a drained residential lake was at the not-so-gentle mercy of a low-level permit writer who was literally enforcing a regulation that had been written to apply to a completely different . The candidate couldn’t get the DEQ to move forward, so as a last resort, he approached me in my capacity as chairman of the board. After reviewing all relevant information, I was able to intervene with senior management and satisfactorily resolve the issue to the satisfaction of the homeowners association. If the board hadn’t had the ultimate permitting authority, I’m not sure the staff would have listened, but instead reflexively circled the cars in support of their original position.

These examples demonstrate that our current processes, which require broad public participation, with the ability for an empowered independent SWCB to review and act, serve as a powerful corrective to bureaucracy, serving the interests of licensees, the public and the environment.

When the bureaucracy isn’t listening, licensees and the public can appeal to the council. Normally, our DEQ staff get it right, but no one should object to a citizens’ panel at public hearings and deliberations hearing criticism from staff in the regulated community and the public and verifying their work. .

The licensing and board enforcement procedures provide licensees and the public with a simple and inexpensive way to participate in matters of vital public interest. All deliberations and actions of the Board of Directors are made in public view, with a detailed record kept. When boards of directors are involved, there are no behind-the-scenes deals. On the rare occasion that the board takes action not recommended by staff, it is required by law to provide a clear legal and factual reason for departing. If you are in favor of transparency and accountability in government, you should support broad authority for advice.

Unlike the department, councils are not politically controlled. The Director of the DEQ serves at the pleasure of the Governor. But board members, appointed by the governor for staggered four-year terms confirmed by the legislature, have specific terms and can only be removed for cause, ensuring environmental policy consistency. . As such, councils are better able to uphold their oaths and affirmations to abide by the Commonwealth Constitution and laws regardless of political pressures. Indeed, our legislature, by creating and empowering citizens’ councils, has placed powerful control over the executive branch of government in the area of ​​the environment.

Opponents of a planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County demonstrated outside the General Assembly Building ahead of a meeting of the State Air Pollution Control Board on Wednesday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – December 19, 2018)

When I served on the Water Board, I appreciated the complementary nature of the regulatory, licensing and enforcement powers of the boards. We had the opportunity to see how the regulations we promulgated were applied to permits, which allowed us to better approve both. And participating in enforcement has shown us how things can go wrong, allowing us to once again do a better job of approving regulations and permits.

If you are in favor of open and transparent government, if you are in favor of controlling bureaucratic power, if you are in favor of a division of powers between the respective branches of government, if you are in favor of the depoliticization of decisions environmental, if you favor creating a playing field where the small entrepreneur has the same access to environmental decision-makers as the most powerful corporations in the state, if you favor those decision-makers guided by the constitution, the law and the scientific facts without fear of losing their jobs, if you favor any of these things then you must oppose this bill.

Could our citizens advice be improved? Certainly, but this bill misses that target by a mile. Whatever problems this bill seeks to address, it fails by throwing the baby out with the bathwater and ending a process of environmental regulation and protection that has served the Commonwealth well for decades.

Shelton Miles is a Campbell County rancher and pastor. He is a former chairman of the State Water Control Board.