Virginia’s citizen boards play key roles in Virginia’s balanced framework for protecting the environment by ensuring that citizens drawn from across the Commonwealth, not bureaucrats, get the final say on regulatory and permitting decisions.
Two recently introduced bills, Senate Bill 657 and House Bill 1261, would severely limit the ability of citizen boards to ensure that permitting decisions are made in public view by removing permit approval authority from the Air and Water Boards. Additionally, HB 1261 would inject partisan politics into Virginia’s citizen boards (including the Waste Management Board) by allowing the House and Senate to appoint some Board members.
While the Commonwealth’s elected officials enact environmental laws that regulatory agencies implement through regulations and permits, Virginia’s regulatory boards uniquely ensure that Virginians—the public—have an opportunity to not only provide a meaningful voice in shaping the rules that are designed to protect our air, water, and lands and the permits issued thereunder, but also to engage publicly in the decision-making process.
Citizen boards also help guarantee that Virginia’s constitutional policies to protect our atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction are met—protections the boards are uniquely positioned to uphold.
Citizen boards also promote transparency by ensuring that important environmental decisions are made in full public view. Our citizen boards meet in public, deliberate in public, receive input from the public, and cast their up-or-down votes in public. Removing the Air and Water Board’s permitting approval authority will result in permits being negotiated between the applicant and the Department of Environmental Quality behind closed doors.
Members of the citizen boards are nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the General Assembly for four-year terms. Appointments on the boards are staggered, so that no one Governor can replace all of the members of a given board. This provides consistency in decision-making and helps insulate the boards from political pressures, especially considering the prohibition on Virginia Governors serving consecutive terms.
Regulatory boards ensure that Virginians have a meaningful voice in shaping the rules that are designed to protect our air, water, tidal waterways, and lands. Although citizen board members are not experts, they bring thoughtful, real-world perspectives to technical decisions.
Rather than seeking to reduce the authority of citizen boards to act on behalf of citizens of the Commonwealth, the General Assembly should instead remove impediments to boards’ abilities to receive relevant information from the public including those directly affected by proposed projects and clarify the boards’ ability to act independently of the agencies which the boards oversee in making final decisions related to regulations and permits.
In addition to SB 657 and HB 1261, which would remove authority from the Air and Water Boards to consider and approve certain permits, another bill, Senate Bill 81, would rescind the Air Board's ability to consider project siting factors in air permitting decisions. Likewise, House Bill 1204 would remove the Air Board's authority to issue a minor new source review air permit, removing the board's ability to approve these permits when significant public interest has been expressed. Because these four bills would strip authority from the boards, reducing transparency and public access to the decision-making process for air and water permits, they should be opposed.