Bipartisan Developments in Virginia Environmental Policy

Since the first wave of sweeping executive orders from the Trump White House, political junkies have been monitoring how state and local governments react. In the most dramatic response, some municipalities have rejected requests to detain people on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, prompting what will no doubt be a messy legal showdown along partisan lines. The state of Virginia has not escaped the instability of the recent months, but there is one area where bipartisan unity has more or less emerged: the protection of the environment, and of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in particular.

The Trump administration’s approach to environmental protection has been particularly troubling, given the stated goals of highly-placed political officials to change the federal government’s role in this field. As part of this crusade, the White House reportedly wants to slash the Chesapeake Bay Program, a subsidiary of the EPA, from a budget of $73 million to $5 million. This has not gone over well; regardless of political party, lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia tend to agree that continued effort to maintain the health of the Chesapeake Bay is a good thing for the health and well-being of citizens whose livelihoods may depend on the water.

Donald Trump is under the impression that laws such as the Clean Water Act, and the Obama administration’s interpretation of its implementation, were wildly unpopular: “So many jobs are delayed for so many years, and it’s unfair to everybody,” Trump railed while signing an executive order rolling back Obama-era protections. Yet state laws considered in the months since then have given the lie to the repeated assertion from the White House that common people agree with this particular brand of anti-environmental radicalism.

The Virginia General Assembly is occupied by Republican majorities in both houses, though in the Senate the difference is by a single vote. Additionally, both the governor and the lieutenant governor are currently Democrats, providing a counterbalance of power in the forms of vetoing legislation and breaking tie votes in the Senate, respectively. The General Assembly has recently endorsed HB 2383 and SB 898, identical bills which have made their way through the General Assembly. Both bills embrace the standards of the Clean Water Act in Virginia as a model for regulating sewer outflows within state borders. Both bills received Republican and Democratic support.

HB 2383 and SB 898 may not be perfect; Governor McAuliffe has made several recommendations which House and Senate have rejected, and the text as it stands lacks specificity in what penalties exactly would be levied on polluters who fail to comply before the deadlines. Still, I hope that this action will be taken as a sharp rebuke to federal environmental policy under Donald Trump, which completely fails to meet the needs of everyday people.