Virginia is today a partner-on-the-mend after an eight-year assault upon the very foundations of her longstanding commitment to resource protection and an enduring tradition of stewardship of and for the Chesapeake Bay.
To appreciate this fully, one has only to witness the recent selection and appointment of the highly respected Tayloe Murphy as Virginia’s new secretary of natural resources by incoming Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.
Ever at the forefront of Chesapeake resource protection, Murphy has long stood as a symbol of personal integrity while keeping Virginians focused on their Bay traditions and history.
Bay Journal readers may be familiar with Murphy’s steady hand in serving and leading the Chesapeake Bay Commission over the years, but few beyond Virginia’s borders can appreciate the price he has paid for authoring and shepherding into law the state’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act legislation a decade ago. Residential housing and commercial development interests and any number of associated Virginia sprawl-dependent industries continue to gun for Murphy whenever they can, loudly decrying his view of Bay watershed stewardship as one that is anti-progress and anti-business.
This January, the words “honoring Chesapeake Bay commitments” returned to the text of our new governor’s State of the Commonwealth address, after an appalling absence of too many years.
Warner also spoke of Virginia’s need to craft a state water supply plan that rationally manages the provision of adequate drinking water for everyone in the state.
To those of us dedicated to protecting Virginia’s bountiful inventory of natural resources, and water resources in particular, this was music to our ears. We paused to savor the moment, and rightfully so.
All too quickly, this moment of joy vanished as the environmental and grass-roots communities learned of an on-the-way-out-the-door Gilmore administration final insult.
This parting shot was stealthily delivered during the chaos of Virginia’s gubernatorial transition period, and at the bidding of Newport News cronies through the offices of the Department of Environmental Quality.
Never mind that Gilmore’s hand-picked Republican successor had been emphatically rejected in November’s election, having failed to ride Gilmore’s short-sighted, treasury-depleting “no-car-tax-or-die” strategy coattails.
Never mind that Gilmore’s departing DEQ director resigned after announcing his newfound position as environmental affairs director for Smithfield Foods, a company distinguished of late as Virginia’s often-cited and rarely fined river polluter.
Never mind Gilmore’s national humiliation after being dumped by President Bush as the least-effective and shortest tenured chairman of the Republican National Committee after failing to carry even his own state in an off-year election, when there were only two races to run.
Gilmore wasn’t finished yet. In an apparent desperate attempt to shore up the position of yet another insider group of anxious urban supporters in Newport News, the Gilmore administration and the city crafted a 30-day public notice pertaining to a state certification process that almost went unnoticed.
Why? Because the notice was released by the DEQ for one-time press distribution for Dec. 31, 2001. That’s right, Virginia, a 30-day public notice delivered on New Year’s Eve.
The notice called for a 30-day public comment period in reaction to the DEQ’s surprise announcement of its intent to immediately certify that the proposed King William reservoir was consistent with Virginia’s Coastal Resources Management Program.
This would, in effect, constitute a “sign-off” by the DEQ in support of the proposed reservoir project, on the basis that it had been found to be consistent with Virginia’s comprehensive effort to protect coastal resources.
Given that the final Army Corps of Engineers decision on the reservoir is under review in New York, the implications for how an unchallenged state certification might be viewed by Corps decision-makers are both onerous and significant.
Never mind that after a protracted decade-long review, Virginia Corps’ Norfolk District Engineer Allan B. Carroll recommended denial of the reservoir project, concluding that the project would destroy hundreds of acres of significant coastal and forested wetlands, threaten endangered species, impact shad spawning grounds and significantly and disproportionately impact both of Virginia’s reservation-based and state-recognized Native American tribes.
Never mind that repeated, multiple studies by a number of impartial water supply professionals and consultants each failed to make the case that Newport News really needed the water.
Never mind that Gilmore, outraged with Carroll’s preliminary decision to deny the required Corps project permits, acted to have the final decision removed from Virginia to the Corps’ North Atlantic Regional Office in New York, where perhaps other and greater pressures might be brought to bear.
Never mind that the DEQ had previously articulated its decision to defer on Newport News’ repeated requests for federal consistency certification until after the pending Corps of Engineers final decision was made in New York.
Never mind the obvious cunning with which this was accomplished, to say nothing of the transparency of this insult to every thinking Virginian implicit in the timing of the Gilmore administration’s New Year’s Eve public notice.
Never mind that that this was clearly a time when the focus of Virginians was rightfully upon family and friends, and not on the outgoing government in transition, to say nothing of a state government agency’s permit consistency action pending!
It should come as no surprise to anyone that as the Jan. 30, 2002 closing date of the comment period loomed, only 14 comments had been received by the DEQ, all in favor of the proposed certification.
Quick and responsive action by Virginia’s Sierra Club and the local Alliance to Save the Mattaponi and others in getting the word out (once the discovery of the notice was made) resulted in the submittal of 100 additional comments within 14 hours, all in opposition to the proposed certification.
Subsequently, the DEQ extended the public comment period for 30 days, and the result has been that yet another “end-run” attempt by Gilmore’s administration has failed.
Never mind that all involved in this should be ashamed of themselves and that each owes all Virginians an apology, starting with former Governor Gilmore.
Looking ahead, it appears that Virginia will recover, albeit slowly, from the dark days of the last two administrations, when the Bay’s restoration rarely got equal billing with issues such as states’ rights, private property rights or populist tax-relief gimmicks resulting in a spate of unfunded mandates that only paid lip service toward anything approaching meaningful tributary nutrient reduction, amid an overall industry recruitment climate that emphasized business first and the environment second.
Virginians, as well as all of our Bay partners, are excited about the abrupt and welcome new direction for the state. as exemplified by Warner and Murphy; none more than those who seek to keep the Bay’s restoration a Virginia priority.
Yes, Virginia, we’ve got a big-time budget and revenue shortfall problem that will clearly slow the pace of our progress in the near-term, but so do many other states.
The important thing is that we have new leadership and have set our sights in a new direction; one that includes not only meeting our obligations under myriad Chesapeake Bay commitments, but in actively participating as a full partner once again.
Never mind, we’re back!