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Canadian and western wildfires bring hazardous smoke to Virginia

“It’s basically all over the state at this point,” said Virginia Department of Environmental Quality meteorologist Dan Salkovitz. “All the monitors that we’ve got in the state are elevated today.” 

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Massive wildfires near the Ontario-Minnesota border, as well as blazes farther west in Canada and the United States, are bringing smoke throughout Virginia, causing state officials to issue a health alert Wednesday morning due to high levels of particulate matter.

“It’s basically all over the state at this point,” said Virginia Department of Environmental Quality meteorologist Dan Salkovitz. “All the monitors that we’ve got in the state are elevated today.” 

State air quality monitors registered the highest levels of fine particulate matter in Winchester and the lowest in Hampton, although all of the reports were higher than normal. 

Particulate matter is a mixture of solid and liquid droplets in the air that can be inhaled. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to these particles can aggravate respiratory systems and heart function and can exacerbate existing conditions such as asthma. 

Much of the smoke seen in Virginia is coming from a plume generated by hundreds of fires in Ontario, said Salkovitz, although blazes along the West Coast are also contributing. While earlier this week the effects were mostly seen in hazy skies and brilliant sunsets, smoke began mixing with air closer to the earth’s surface today, driving down air quality. 

A cold front behind the plume is expected to bring clearer air, Salkovitz said, but “unfortunately that front is taking its sweet time to get here.” 

Smoke from the western and Canadian wildfires has caused problems throughout the East Coast this week, triggering officials in numerous states to issue health alerts. 

While wildfires are driven by a variety of factors, scientists have linked their increasing incidence and intensity in the West with climate change, which has been driving up temperatures and changing precipitation patterns.

Virginia residents can sign up to receive air quality alerts from DEQ here.

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Downtown

Virginia attorney general announces plan to hire state’s first cannabis lawyer

“I’m hiring a dedicated attorney to help guide the commonwealth’s efforts because I am committed to getting this right, and to making sure that we keep Virginia at the forefront of national efforts to craft a more just, fair and sensible system for dealing with cannabis,” Herring said in a statement.

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Attorney General Mark Herring says he plans to hire a lawyer dedicated to marijuana law now that the state has legalized the drug.

The new addition to his staff would serve as a subject-matter expert as the state’s new Cannabis Control Authority, which Gov. Ralph Northam appointed Monday, begins work developing regulations that will govern the legal marijuana market expected to open in 2024.

“I’m hiring a dedicated attorney to help guide the commonwealth’s efforts because I am committed to getting this right, and to making sure that we keep Virginia at the forefront of national efforts to craft a more just, fair and sensible system for dealing with cannabis,” Herring said in a statement.

The announcement comes as Herring, a Democrat who was among the party’s earliest and loudest supporters of marijuana legalization, seeks reelection to his third term in office. He faces Republican Del. Jason Miyares, who voted against legislation that legalized marijuana possession.

Herring’s office said the new hire will provide advice on the new law to state agencies that deal with everything from taxation to healthcare.

Advocates, who have occasionally voiced frustration with the state’s Board of Pharmacy as it developed rules for the state’s medical marijuana program, said they hoped the additional legal expertise will make things smoother for the recreational marijuana market.

“It’s critical that the commonwealth have counsel available to state agencies who is well-versed in both state and federal cannabis policies,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.

Herring’s office says they’re looking for a lawyer with experience in business law, state and federal litigation, and “a strong knowledge of state and federal regulation of controlled substances.”

Under the legalization bill lawmakers passed earlier this year, employers can still refuse to hire or fire employees who use marijuana. A spokeswoman said the Office of the Attorney General does not conduct drug testing as a condition of employment.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Transportation

Four-lane section of Church Road set to undergo strategic ‘road diet’ to allow for bike lanes

The 1.8-mile portion between Wilde Lake Drive, near Lauderdale Drive, and Chapelwood Lane, near John Rolfe Parkway, will be repaved and restriped to create two travel lanes, a center turn lane and a buffered bike lane on each side.  

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A four-lane stretch of Church Road will be reconfigured this summer in a “road diet” conversion aimed at enhancing safety as well as connectivity for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The 1.8-mile portion between Wilde Lake Drive, near Lauderdale Drive, and Chapelwood Lane, near John Rolfe Parkway, will be repaved and restriped to create two travel lanes, a center turn lane and a buffered bike lane on each side.

The project, approved July 13 by the Board of Supervisors, also will provide curb ramps, median islands, signs and traffic signal modifications. Finley Asphalt & Sealing is expected to start work in August and finish in 45 days.

Church’s conversion is the type of project that can be replicated easily on four-lane, undivided roads with excess capacity because it reallocates how the pavement is used, said Terrell Hughes, director of the Department of Public Works.

In relative terms, it is an economical way to create bike lanes. Seventy-five percent of the project’s $1.2 million cost will cover the repaving, which was already slated to occur.

“That’s our big thing,” Hughes said. “As opportunities arise, we’re trying to increase our pedestrian and bike connectivity.”

Traffic engineers use “road diet” to describe the conversion of an undivided, four-lane road to a three-lane road, with two through lanes and a center lane for left turns. The redesign can bring a 19% to 47% reduction in crashes as well as lower speeds and improved access and mobility for all users, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Church was a strong candidate for conversion because it is due for resurfacing and residents recognized the benefits, Hughes said. In a survey, 71% of 426 respondents preferred the Option 3 proposal for dual bike lanes and a median over two alternatives. Church’s four-lane stretch attracts about 8,500 vehicles per day and connects two-lane sections to its east and west.

The pending reconfiguration also dovetails with earlier initiatives to address safety concerns along the curvy road, which is home to Gayton Elementary School and provides access to Deep Run Park and nearby stores and restaurants.

In June 2019, Public Works reduced the posted speed limit to 35 mph on Church’s 3-mile stretch between Three Chopt Road and Lauderdale Drive as well as on Park Terrace. The speed limit in those areas had been 45 mph.

“Immediately, we started seeing improvements,” Hughes said.

Vehicle crashes on Church dropped from 14 in 2018 – before the change – to five in 2019, none in 2020 and two in the first six months of 2021. In addition, the average speed dropped by 5.8 mph, from 49.8 mph in 2016 and 2018 to 44 mph in 2019.

Hughes credited residents and the homeowners’ associations along the corridor for helping to shape the plan.

“We hear the residents of the county, and we’re actively working countywide on improvements that can be made,” he said.

Public Works sees the potential for similar road conversions on Dumbarton and Dickens roads in Lakeside and hopes to present proposals to the community late this year or early next year.

“We’re starting to see the benefits of slowing things down a bit,” Hughes said. “You can accommodate both cars and pedestrians without sacrificing either.”

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Arts & Entertainment

Patrick Patrong named VMFA’s new Chief Diversity Officer

As Chief Diversity Officer, Assistant Deputy Director for Equity, Diversity & Inclusion and HR Strategic Initiatives, Patrong will assist in leading EDIA strategies defined in VMFA’s 2021-2025 Strategic Plan and co-lead the museum’s commitment to the ONE Virginia Plan recently launched by the Governor’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) and Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM).

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The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) has announced the appointment of Patrick Patrong to the position of Chief Diversity Officer, Assistant Deputy Director for Equity, Diversity & Inclusion and HR Strategic Initiatives. Patrong comes to VMFA with more than 25 years of experience as a public service leader.

Currently the lead facilitator for his consulting firm, Patrong Enterprises, Inc., he has also worked as Construction Training Manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation and Director of the Training, Education and Exercise Division for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. In addition, he led organizational diversity initiatives for seven professional schools of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, while serving as Director of Organization and Employee Development.

“Patrick has a solid background in implementing and managing diversity programs at several agencies in the public sector. We are delighted to have someone with his extensive experience joining the museum’s human resources team,” said Alex Nyerges, VMFA’s Director and CEO. “Patrick will play a leading role taking VMFA’s EDIA initiatives to the next level and ensuring that the values of equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility are fully integrated into everything the museum does and shared with all VMFA employees.”

As Chief Diversity Officer, Assistant Deputy Director for Equity, Diversity & Inclusion and HR Strategic Initiatives, Patrong will assist in leading EDIA strategies defined in VMFA’s 2021-2025 Strategic Plan and co-lead the museum’s commitment to the ONE Virginia Plan recently launched by the Governor’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) and Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM).

For more than a decade, VMFA has actively worked to diversify its collection, exhibitions, staff and audience. Building on the success of its previous strategic plan, the museum strives to become a more vibrant, inclusive cultural leader. The museum’s current strategic plan demonstrates its commitment to the principles of equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility. VMFA’s vision is to be an institution that empowers all Virginians — through art and creativity — to reflect and connect to each other, their communities and the wider world.

“I am excited to join the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts team, to work with employees and the museum’s community on expanding the institutional EDIA initiatives. VMFA’s diverse organizational culture already has unique advantages when it comes to attracting diverse staff and visitors and developing museum exhibitions, art collections and programs that appeal to diverse communities,” said Patrong. “Communication, idea generation, creativity and connectivity are all enhanced through engagement with the museum’s representative communities.”

“Patrick’s knowledge and experience will help VMFA continue to advance towards instilling EDIA values and practices, becoming a more valuable and relevant community resource, and providing even greater access to the arts for all people in the Commonwealth,” said Kimberly Wilson, VMFA’s Chief Operating Officer and CHRO/Deputy Director for Human Resource Services, Museum Operations and Volunteers.

Patrong will begin his position at VMFA on July 26. For more information about VMFA’s strategic plan and EDIA initiatives visit www.VMFA.museum.

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