Gov. James S. Gilmore III announced plans yesterday to provide easy Internet access to Virginia environmental data, prompting muffled praise from activists who have frequently criticized the Republican governor for his actions on environmental issues.
With the help of a $500,000 grant from federal regulators, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will develop special software allowing power companies, county governments and others to file environmental permits, pollution-monitoring reports and other information online.
At the same time, residents will be able to read and download such information from the Internet, avoiding the need to submit a request for paper documents.
Gilmore's plans stand in stark contrast to the approach of the previous governor, George Allen (R), who was frequently criticized as being indifferent to environmental issues. A state audit released last month, for example, concluded that the Allen administration had refused to release a database of water contaminants even to federal regulators.
"This is not specifically related to that situation, but it does help us alleviate that kind of problem," said Bill Hayden, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality. "The immediate effect is a time-saving and cost-saving measure. In the long term, it will enable us to begin offering an entire system of electronic permit-filing and monitoring."
Gilmore has had a frosty relationship with many of Virginia's most vocal environmental groups, who have decried his policies on transportation, development and watershed protection. Glen Besa, state director for the Sierra Club, said that the online-reporting program marks an improvement from the Allen regime but that he and other environmentalists still have grave concerns about many of Gilmore's policies.
"It doesn't look like they're playing the hide-the-ball trick, which is an improvement from the previous administration," Besa said. "But we continue to run out of patience with the Gilmore administration on environmental issues. He won't even talk to us."
Hayden said Department of Environmental Quality administrators plan to start meeting with major Virginia businesses early next year to develop software that will work for everyone. Information should begin appearing online by the middle of 2000, officials said.
The federal grant is part of a broader Environmental Protection Agency program to encourage Virginia and other states to develop a "one-stop" approach to environmental regulation, aiming to relieve the paperwork burdens on businesses and improve access to information for residents.
Twenty-one other states--including Maryland and West Virginia--have received similar grants and are in the process of implementing their own electronic reporting programs, EPA officials said. Maryland officials say they expect to have their program complete within two years.
Virginia has already allotted about $3 million in the current fiscal year to develop the one-stop program. The federal grant will allow the commonwealth to speed up the launch of the program, according to state and federal officials.
"Rather than having to maintain mountains and mountains of paperwork, doing it electronically will give us the speed and ease associated with data processing," said John Paul Woodley Jr., Gilmore's secretary of natural resources. "This is really the future of environmental permitting and reporting."