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John: General Assembly protects state's utilities

John: General Assembly protects state's utilities

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We just wrapped up a historic legislative session in Virginia where our lawmakers passed bills like the Voting Rights Act of Virginia and abolished the death penalty.

Both of these bills center equity by addressing the racial discrimination faced at the ballot box and in the criminal justice system and in doing so, provided more opportunity to all of us, regardless of the color of our skin.

But despite the opportunity, some members of the Virginia Senate missed multiple chances to prioritize environmental justice during the General Assembly session.

The only energy-policy victory on the on the environmental justice front was when legislators passed SB1247 from Senator Creigh Deeds and HB1834 from Delegate Suhas Subramanyam, which will require utilities to provide public notice on future power plant closures so that communities can prepare for the economic disruption and potential post closure clean-up activities.

This was an important step forward, but doesn’t go nearly far enough in centering environmental justice and ensuring all of us can thrive.

Instead of prioritizing electric customers, some members of the Senate sided with utility monopolies like Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power, and the wealthy shareholders who profit from pollution.

In the most egregious example, a bipartisan group of state Senators repeatedly voted against rate reform legislation. Those bills would have prevented utility monopolies from overcharging their customers and put money back in the pockets of hardworking people in Virginia.

They could have advanced environmental justice by ensuring consumer protections and by preventing monopoly utilities from pocketing those overcharges (which amount to more than $500 million since 2017 in the case of Dominion Energy).

Ultimately, the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor killed the following bills:

HB2160 (Delegate Kathy Tran) would have given the State Corporation Commission (SCC) the ability to set fair rates and provide it with authority to require that utilities return 100% of the money they have overcharged their customers via bill credits.

HB1984 (Delegate Sally Hudson) would have allowed the SCC to set rates based on the cost of service going forward, regardless of pre-existing legislation to the contrary.

HB1914 (Delegate Dan Helmer) would have removed the $50 million cap on rate reductions for utility monopolies to ensure fair rates.

HB2200 (Delegate Jay Jones) sought to restore regulatory oversight power to the SCC that would help ensure utility monopolies don’t use creative accounting methods to charge customers more. Legislators voted against them all.

People in Virginia are already paying the sixth-highest electricity bills in the nation. We can’t accept a system that encourages unfairly high monthly bills when low-income families struggle to keep the lights on in the best of times, much less in a pandemic.

It is time for customers to stop paying the price for corporate greed.

Another disappointing move came when lawmakers failed to reach a compromise on two bills that would have strengthened the Virginia Environmental Justice Act (VEJA) of 2020 and better protected communities from existing or foreseeable exposures to environmental pollution.

SB1318 from Sen. Ghazala Hashmi and HB2074 from Del. Shelly Simonds sought to require agencies to adopt agency-specific environmental justice policies and regulations as well as expand and make permanent the interagency environmental justice workgroup (established on a preliminary basis in the state’s biennial budget), and require this workgroup to collaboratively address environmental injustice across Virginia.

Many underserved, low-income, Black, Latino, and indigenous communities are impacted by industrial pollution, and these bills would have moved the state towards addressing these harms and better protecting the air, water, and land that we rely on to survive and cherish in our day-to-day activities.

Working-class families, neighborhoods of color, and certain regions of the state are disproportionately impacted by pollution, affecting Virginians’ public health and quality of life. The disparity isn’t an accident, and it won’t magically fix itself. Justice was not done for the environment or the people of Virginia when politicians voted against these common sense utility reform and environmental justice bills.

All of us, regardless of our zip code, income, or race, deserve to breathe healthy air, drink clean water, have affordable essential utilities, and access to opportunities in the clean energy economy.

We won’t solve environmental injustice and correct years of harm overnight. But our legislators must do better and start putting people over profits so we can make some progress toward rectifying the harms of environmental injustice.

We, the people of the Commonwealth and environmental justice advocates, have come together. Now we need our legislators to step up and join us.

Johns is executive director of Virginia Organizing. He is based in Charlottesville.

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