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Trump EPA head, coal lobbyist tapped as Virginia’s environmental chief

Wheeler pick sparks sharp opposition from Democrats and conservation groups.

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By Sarah Vogelsong

Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin announced Trump EPA chief and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as his pick for Virginia’s next secretary of natural and historic resources. 

“Virginia needs a diverse energy portfolio in place to fuel our economic growth, continued preservation of our natural resources, and a comprehensive plan to tackle rising sea levels,” said Youngkin in a news release announcing not only his selection of Wheeler but his intention to replace long-standing Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor with wetland restoration firm head Michael Rolband. 

“Andrew and Michael share my vision in finding new ways to innovate and use our natural resources to provide Virginia with a stable, dependable and growing power supply that will meet Virginia’s power demands without passing the costs on to the consumer,” said Youngkin. 

The choice, which was first broken by Politico early Wednesday and announced by Youngkin’s transition team Wednesday afternoon, sent shock waves through the state’s environmental circles. 

“This is hands down the most extreme nomination for an environmental post in Virginia’s history and the absolute worst pick that the governor-elect could make,” said Mike Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “While we were optimistic we might be able to find some common ground with the new administration moving forward, this nomination makes it plainly clear that environmental protections are under attack in Virginia, and we are prepared to fight to defend them.”

Wheeler, who served as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2019 until the end of President Donald Trump’s administration, was an outspoken proponent of environmental deregulation during his tenure, ruffling feathers even among his own agency scientists

The former coal lobbyist’s views on climate change have also troubled many environmentalists. While Wheeler during confirmation hearings for his EPA appointment said that “climate change is real” and “man has an impact on it,” he subsequently oversaw the unwinding of numerous regulations to reduce climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions.  

Among the actions taken during his tenure were the rollback of President Barack Obama’s never-enacted Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions from coal plants as well as the Obama administration’s stricter fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. Current Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring sued Wheeler and his EPA at least six times over environmental issues.

Since the end of his EPA term, Wheeler has slowly inched into Virginia politics. In September, he spoke out against a five-cent plastic bag tax during a hearing before Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors. In November, following sweeping Republican victories in Virginia elections, he was appointed to Youngkin’s transition team

Youngkin’s choice of Wheeler for the natural resources secretary position quickly provoked opposition from Democrats, who are already wary of the incoming governor’s environmental stance after Youngkin’s surprise December announcement that he intends to use executive action to pull Virginia out of a regional carbon market. Virginia’s participation in that market had been a top priority of Democrats when they took power in 2020. 

Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Susan Swecker said Youngkin’s pick “makes clear that his administration will continue to fail Virginia on climate change as sea levels rise, rain events become more severe and record-setting temperatures threaten our economy and natural resources.” 

Where Democrats’ opposition will matter most, however, will be in the Senate, where the party maintains a narrow 21-19 edge and could conceivably block an appointment such as Wheeler’s. 

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said Wednesday that while Senate Democrats haven’t discussed the natural resources pick as a caucus, “I think a lot of our members are going to have very serious concerns” with Wheeler. 

“I would think any Republican member who’s in any kind of competitive suburban seat would really need to think twice about voting for someone like him given where Virginia’s been leading on environmental policy,” said Surovell. 

Jacqueline Hixson, a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats, said in an email that she couldn’t “say definitively whether any Youngkin appointments will be confirmed by the Senate.” 

Harry Godfrey, executive director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, a clean energy business group that was one of the main architects of Democratic climate legislation in 2020, said that “it is vital” that the Senate consider Wheeler’s record with EPA to “determine whether it aligns with the policy direction that the General Assembly has established in recent years.” 

Virginia under its last two years of Democratic control garnered national headlines for its efforts to combat climate change through decarbonization with a slate of policies more in line with those of Mid-Atlantic and New England states than its southern neighbors. 

Under Gov. Ralph Northam and Democratic leadership of the General Assembly, Virginia pushed through measures committing the state’s electric grid to becoming carbon-free by 2045, authorizing participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative cap-and-invest market and adopting the more stringent California auto emissions standards in place of federal ones. 

The energy industry has responded to the policy measures. According to a report from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, utility-scale solar is on track to become the state’s third largest source of electricity this year, displacing coal. In a major win for the state’s efforts to become the East Coast’s primary offshore wind hub, Siemens Gamesa this October announced it would build the nation’s first offshore wind turbine blade facility in Portsmouth

Both the state’s two largest electric utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, have also pivoted toward renewables. Appalachian Power began drawing power from solar for the first time this fall and on Tuesday released what it calls its “most robust renewables plan to date,” with plans to add almost 500 megawatts of solar and wind over the next three years.

Dominion, which plans to build a massive 2.6 gigawatt wind farm off the coast of Virginia Beach, has almost entirely divested its natural gas business and is selling investors on what it describes as “the largest, the broadest in scope, the longest in duration and the most visible regulated decarbonization opportunity among U.S. utilities.” 

Republicans including Youngkin, however, have attacked many of the new policies as too costly for consumers and too risky for the electric grid, emphasizing a 2020 estimate by the State Corporation Commission that the Virginia Clean Economy Act will raise the average residential customer’s annual costs by $800 by 2030. During his campaign, Youngkin described the VCEA as “unworkable” and warned that the renewables transition would lead to “blackouts and brownouts and an unreliable energy grid.”

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Venture Richmond Offering Up 10k Broad Street Tenant Recruitment Grants

Venture Richmond was awarded a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing & Community Development to help recruit ten new tenants to Broad Street in Downtown Richmond. Each new tenant will get a $10,000 grant for moving in and opening by May 15, 2022.

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From Venture Richmond

Venture Richmond was awarded a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing & Community Development to help recruit ten new tenants to Broad Street in Downtown Richmond. Each new tenant will get a $10,000 grant for moving in and opening by May 15, 2022. Venture Richmond is partnering with the Metropolitan Business League (MBL) to help recruit existing small, women, and minority (SWaM) and immigrant-owned businesses to ­fill street-level vacancies in the area.

​The new businesses will join many galleries, retailers, restaurants, and small businesses who already call Broad Street home, as well as businesses that attract thousands of out of town visitors annually like Quirk Hotel, Richmond Marriott, the Hilton Hotel, and the Convention Center. Gather, co-working space, has a location in the area. A popular neighborhood happening is RVA First Fridays Artwalk which is a monthly celebration of the arts and galleries along and around Broad St. This section of Broad Street is also a part of Richmond’s Arts District and adjacent to Jackson Ward, near the VCU Monroe Park Campus and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) to the west and City and State offices and VCU Health to the east.

THE CRITERIA FOR ELIGIBILITY INCLUDES THE FOLLOWING:

  • Eligible once the business has moved into the space and opened for business by May 15, 2022.
  • Veri­fied 1-year minimum lease
  • Lease street-level space on Broad Street between Belvidere and 5th streets
  • New business to Downtown, not the relocation of an existing business in the General District/BID.
  • Existing businesses in the General District, who want to open an additional location on Broad Street.
  • Existing businesses located outside of the General District, who want to open another location/outpost on Broad Street.
  • Types of qualifying businesses include retailers, restaurants, makers, entrepreneurs, startups, and other creative businesses.
  • One $10,000 reimbursement grant per storefront, if a group of small businesses wanted to share space there would only be one grant available for the group.
  • Only eligible once
  • Availability based on ­first come fi­rst served

FOR MORE INFORMATION OR ASSISTANCE, CONTACT:

Micah White

Business Development Manager

The MBL

804-356-9298

[email protected]

Lucy Meade

Director Economic Development & Community Relations

Venture Richmond, Inc.

804-248-8372

[email protected]

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Virginia lawmakers propose decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms

“It is increasingly a recognized treatment for refractory depression and PTSD,” said Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, a nurse practitioner whose legislation would also decriminalize peyote, a cactus that contains the psychedelic compound mescalin. “It’s changed people’s lives.”

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By Ned Oliver

Two Virginia lawmakers have introduced legislation that would end felony penalties for possession of psychedelic mushrooms, citing the drug’s growing acceptance in medicinal contexts.

“It is increasingly a recognized treatment for refractory depression and PTSD,” said Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, a nurse practitioner whose legislation would also decriminalize peyote, a cactus that contains the psychedelic compound mescalin. “It’s changed people’s lives.”

The legislation would reduce the penalty for possession — currently a Class 5 felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison — to a $100 civil fine.

Sens. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, and Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

The bill would put Virginia at the forefront of a nascent decriminalization movement that has primarily been limited to cities, including Washington, D.C. So far, Oregon is the only state to legalize medicinal use of psilocybin, an active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms.

The bill likely faces long odds, especially in the House of Delegates, where the newly reinstated Republican majority has historically resisted efforts to loosen drug laws. That said, Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, who leads the chamber’s Courts of Justice Committee, said he is open to hearing arguments in favor of the legislation.

“That is not something we’ve taken up before,” he said. “I’d be interested in hearing what (Adams) has to say.”

Even if the legislation were to pass, the drug would remain illegal, albeit with reduced penalties. That makes it unlikely medical providers in Virginia would embrace psychedelics as a treatment option, but Adams said it would nonetheless be a step in the right direction.

“If we decriminalize it, it allows people to learn,” she said. “It doesn’t egg people on (to use the drug). It tries to open the door for us to continue to study the positive effects on people’s mental health going forward.”

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GRTC Prepares for Downtown Transfer Plaza Update

GRTC will update the Downtown Transfer Plaza with new bus bay locations on 9th, Clay, and 8th Streets to accommodate nearby construction zones and preserve bus rider connections at night and on Sundays.

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Soon GRTC will update the Downtown Transfer Plaza with new bus bay locations on 9th, Clay, and 8th Streets to accommodate nearby construction zones and preserve bus rider connections at night and on Sundays. Several bus stop shelters, benches, and trash cans will be relocated to new bay locations on Clay and 8th St., and wayfinding maps will be posted nearby for riders. New on-board announcements will explain the bay locations and routes serving them when buses approach the Plaza. GRTC expects the updates may be necessary as soon as February 2022.

Four bays will not change at all – A, B, C, and D. However, Bays E and F relocate to Clay and Bays G, H, and I will relocate to 8th St. Bus Stop #2522 at 9th and Marshall will become Bay J. Because of nearby construction, some pedestrian pathways may be closed. Riders should only use marked pedestrian crossings at the Plaza.

GRTC Chief Executive Officer Julie Timm says, “I appreciate the City of Richmond’s support to help us coordinate necessary operational updates at the Downtown Transfer Plaza so that we can continue reliably serving customers and keep everyone safe from nearby construction zones. We were able to ensure essential infrastructure of shelters, benches, and wayfinding signage will be available at the new bus bays on 8th and Clay Streets. Our riders have been dealing with detours and other service adjustments Downtown recently, and we ask them, once again, to please pardon our dust as we work around obstacles to connect them with their jobs, homes, shopping, health care, education, and other community resources.”

This week, GRTC staff will begin installation of new bus bay stop signs, post new wayfinding materials, and coordinate with construction crews on relocation of shelters, benches, and trash cans in advance of sidewalk closures.

The Downtown Transfer Plaza opened in 2014 on 9th St. to ensure bus service could operate during major events on Broad St. in 2014 and 2015 and remained on 9th St. while efforts to secure a permanent transfer site continued. With the network redesign in 2018, the Downtown Transfer Plaza is now primarily used on Sundays and at nights when connecting buses have lower frequencies (longer waits between buses) and need well-timed connections for bus riders to transfer between 30-minute or hourly bus routes.

Another temporary update to the Downtown Transfer Plaza is expected later in 2022 when bays will move within the 8th St. surface parking lot between 8th and 9th Sts., and Leigh and Clay Sts., fully relocating bus bays from on-street to a designated lot out of the flow of general traffic. The City of Richmond and GRTC are collaborating on the updates in 2022 and continue joint efforts with other stakeholders to plan for a permanent Downtown Transfer Center in the future.

GRTC is a public service corporation providing mobility services in the Greater Richmond area. GRTC’s current operational budget (FY22) of $63.2 million primarily funds daily mobility operations and vehicle maintenance. GRTC provided 7.8 million trips during FY21 (July 1, 2020 – July 30, 2021).

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