Gov. James Gilmore forced Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner David Gehr to resign this summer. Gehr, a professional engineer with nearly 30 years' experience in the department, was replaced in an acting capacity by a 33-year-old political operative.
That Gilmore forced Gehr to resign was no surprise. With the pressure being put on the governor by the business community and by both political parties to respond to the desperate transportation situation, it was only a matter of time before he chose a scapegoat.
What was surprising was the reason given for Gehr's ousting. During the past several years, many transportation projects have been delayed, others had major cost overruns, and the transportation department was having trouble keeping up with its mission. But the commissioner was not dismissed for these reasons. He was forced out because of two alleged environmental violations by private contractors.
In one incident, a private contractor reportedly broke open a lagoon of human-sewage sludge, causing waste to spill into the Tuckahoe Creek in Goochland County. In the other, a private contractor destroyed 2 1/2 acres of wetlands in western Hampton.
"This type of behavior is totally irresponsible and totally unacceptable," Gilmore is reported to have said at his press conference announcing Gehr's firing.
Rather than celebrating the finding of a new friend in the governor, many environmentalists and others were left scratching their heads. In January Gilmore helped kill a resolution in the state Senate requiring a study of the transportation department's environmental record.
Then, just a few weeks later, the governor announced that he would not intervene to stop "Tulloch ditching," the unregulated ditching and draining of nontidal wetlands. Because of a federal court decision in January of 1998, more than 2,200 acres of Virginia wetlands have been drained, and more than 6,000 additional acres are endangered.
Despite recommendations from his own Department of Environmental Quality that he had the power to intervene under state law and stop the ditching, Gilmore has refused to act, citing his concern about possible protracted and costly litigation. In North Carolina the governor already has acted to ban Tulloch ditching and has saved thousands of acres of wetlands.
But Gilmore has not always been fearful of being sued in environmental matters. In the high-profile New York trash situation, he pushed legislation through the General Assembly to cap the amount of trash being imported to the commonwealth, even though industry representatives told him they would take him to court, and his legal advisers told him he would lose. And lose he did in the first court case because the law violated the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution.
Another avenue was open to the governor to control waste importation. His neighbor and friend, Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), heads the House Commerce Committee, where legislation to grant states the authority to regulate the importation of trash has been bottled up. Although 23 governors have appealed to Bliley to let the legislation pass his committee, Gilmore has refused to join them.
In another apparent contradiction, the governor in January helped kill legislation that would have regulated the disposal of trash generated in Virginia. Imported trash goes to lined and regulated landfills. Most trash generated in Virginia goes to unlined and unregulated landfills.
David Gehr lost his career position over the actions of a private contractor concerning 2 1/2 acres of wetlands, while Gilmore's inaction lets private developers make millions draining and developing thousands of acres of wetlands. The governor shines the spotlight on trash coming to Virginia to lined and regulated landfills while allowing much more in-state trash to be sent to unlined and unregulated landfills with unknown environmental consequences.
Such a sorry environmental record will not be mitigated with the dismissal of one career employee. It is time for the legislature to launch an investigation of environmental policies and politics in the commonwealth.
-- Kenneth R. Plum
a Democrat, represents Fairfax in the Virginia House of Delegates.