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Virginia joined a list of 15 states in receiving official notices from the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to submit plans to reduce air pollution late last month. In fact, the notices—which the EPA issued August 25—come more than a year after the actual submission deadline and four months after national environmental groups filed a lawsuit. 

The lawsuit’s filers, including the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and the National Parks Conservation Association, charged the EPA with failure to enforce the Clean Air Act’s Regional Haze Rule. The rule aims to reduce air pollution that affects visibility in wildlife refuges or national parks, but Mary-Stuart Torbeck, a Virginia representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said the impacts go far beyond park boundaries. 

“The same sources of pollutants that are causing the haze in our national parks are also disproportionately affecting the communities near these sources,” Torbeck said. “These are communities that most often are living below the poverty line, and are communities of color.”

Virginia has two sites impacted by the Regional Haze Rule, Shenandoah National Park and the James River Face Wilderness area, and 32 industrial polluters that could be contributing to problems there, Torbeck said. 

“It is not surprising to me that Virginia did not submit a plan to reduce pollution,” Torbeck said. “Currently, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Secretary of Natural [and Historic] Resources’ office are pursuing ways to roll back important measures that we put into place to reduce air pollution in Virginia.”

Environmental advocates in Virginia protested last week after Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration said it plans to exit the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a emissions cap-and-trade program that includes 11 east coast states. 

Three other states in the RGGI coalition—Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont—joined Virginia on the list of states that failed to submit air pollution plans, along with Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. Now that states have been handed official notices, the EPA has two years to either issue its own plan or approve a late one from state regulators. 

The July 2021 deadline for the plans was already an extension; the original cutoff date was in 2017. 

“It is very disappointing considering the tourism and economic dollars that our national parks bring in here in Virginia that [the administration] ignored this request from the EPA,” Torbeck said. “They certainly have had plenty of time.”

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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