Virtual Environment Virginia Draws 350

VMI's Superintendent, Maj. Gen. Wins '85 introduces Keynote speaker, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ’81.

VMI's Superintendent, Maj. Gen. Wins '85 introduces Keynote speaker, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ’81.

LEXINGTON, Va., March 26, 2021—The 31st annual Environment Virginia Symposium, sponsored by the VMI Center for Leadership & Ethics, took place March 23-25 in a virtual format this year. The event, which was canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, attracted approximately 350 attendees this year from a wide variety of backgrounds, among them government, private industry, higher education, and the nonprofit sector.

Topics at this year’s symposium included solar farms—a topic of great local interest since a new solar farm has been proposed in the Fairfield area---along with environmental justice, the ongoing restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) decarbonizing Virginia’s transportation sector, and more.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ’81 kicked off the conference Tuesday morning by announcing that earlier that day, he’d signed Executive Order 77, banning the use of single-use plastics by all state agencies, including colleges and universities. The order, which must be obeyed within 120 days, includes disposable plastic bags, single-use plastic and polystyrene food service containers, plastic straws and cutlery, and single-use plastic water bottles.

Northam stressed that with approximately 22.5 million tons of waste coming in to the state's landfills and incinerators each year, and recycling programs curtailed in many communities, now is the time to make substantial changes.

“Single-use disposable plastic items in particular pose a severe and growing threat to fish and wildlife and to the health of our Chesapeake Bay,” said Northam. “We know the planet will be better off if we stop using so much plastic. The Commonwealth must and will lead by example.”

Northam also took the opportunity to showcase some things that his administration has done towards environmental protection, saying that the state has made “major strides to clean up Virginia’s waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.”

The bay has benefitted from a successful effort to restore native oyster populations, Northam noted, and Virginia’s largest seabird colony now has a permanent home near the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel.

The governor also discussed efforts to fight climate change. In July 2020, Virginia became the first Southern state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a collaborative effort among states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants burning fossil fuels. Northam also mentioned Dominion Energy’s plan to build an off-shore wind farm by 2026 that could power up to 600,000 homes.

Environmental justice was also a focus of the governor’s speech, as he mentioned that the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice is now a permanent body. Furthermore, last year the General Assembly passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which is meant to ensure that minority and low-income individuals are able to keep the land they’ve inherited.

Other land conservation steps have included helping the Chickahominy Tribe acquire 105 acres along the James River, and the Virginia Department of Forestry partnering with the Nature Conservancy to protect over 22,000 acres in Southwest Virginia, the largest conservation easement in Virginia history.

“The environment belongs to all of us,” Northam said.

The next day, March 24, Rockbridge area native Matthew Strickler, Virginia secretary of natural resources, participated in a moderated interview with Bettina Ring, Virginia secretary of agriculture and forestry. Leading the interview was Joe Maroon, executive director of the Virginia Environmental Endowment.

Strickler, a graduate of Rockbridge County High School and Washington and Lee University, discussed the challenges of the Covid pandemic, including formulating guidelines for the use of beaches and state parks, which were critical outlets for many people at a time when the state was otherwise locked down.

Ring also noted the surge of interest in outdoor recreation. “People are getting outdoors more,” she commented. “They’re enjoying the wonderful parks, the wonderful trails, and the wonderful forests that we have.”

Food, too, has been a focus during the pandemic, as many people have begun frequenting farmers’ markets or ordering from those markets online. “People started to think more about where their food was coming from,” Ring stated.

Asked to discuss the highlights of the Northam administration, which is now in its last year, Strickler mentioned increased funding for water quality, environmental protection, and land conservation, and more.

“We weathered the storm of federal rollbacks under the Trump administration and actually strengthened many of Virginia’s environmental regulations,” said Strickler. “We developed and started implementing the strongest Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan in Virginia’s history.”

On Thursday, Rear Adm. Ann C. Phillips (retired), special assistant to the governor for coastal adaptation and protection, spoke on Virginia’s efforts to combat sea level rise from climate change. Phillips began her remarks by emphasizing that what works for urban and suburban coastal communities may not work for rural ones, and that issues of environmental justice must always be considered when formulating plans.

To that end, Northam has directed the issuance of a Virginia Coastal Master Plan, the release of which is anticipated in November 2021. That document will guide the Commonwealth’s future steps not only toward dealing with sea level rise, but also flooding.

Winning the Erchul Environmental Leadership Award for 2021, which recognizes a Virginian who has made significant individual efforts to better our environment, was William A. “Skip” Stiles Jr., executive director of Wetlands Watch, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to protecting wetlands threatened by sea level rise.

The Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards, which recognize successful and innovative efforts that improve Virginia’s environment, were presented Thursday afternoon. This year’s gold medal winners were Freddie Mac, for its sustainability program, and Harrisonburg Public Works, for its Purcell Park Bioreactor Project.

Silver medal winners were the James River National Wildlife Refuge, for its Powell Creek Nature Trail; Newport News Shipbuilding, for its SOAR sustainability program; and Virginia State University, for the Fleet’s Branch stream restoration project.

Receiving bronze medal awards were Page County, for its Battle Creek Landfill; Luck Stone’s Leesburg plant, for providing a habitat for nesting birds; the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at Wallops Island, for its environmental sustainability efforts; and the Sky Meadows State Park, for its Sensory Explorers’ Trail.


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