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Filibuster Distillery and Sid Dilawri have pled guilty to 40 counts of violating Virginia’s State Water Control Law

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RICHMOND (November 5, 2021) – Following charges brought by Attorney General Mark R. Herring and the Virginia Department of Environmental Equality (DEQ), Filibuster Distillery, LLC (Filibuster), Filibuster Barrels, LLC, and Sid Dilawri have pled guilty to 40 counts of violating Virginia’s State Water Control Law for dumping over 40,000 gallons of industrial waste and discharging cooling water outside of the terms of their permit into a stream in Shenandoah County. Collectively, the two corporations and Dilawri have agreed to pay a $700,000 penalty, a majority of which will be redirected back into the Shenandoah County community through education and infrastructure support. As part of the agreement, Filibuster agrees to maintain compliance at the distillery and invest in equipment upgrades to prevent future environmental impacts. These guilty pleas are the first criminal pleas related to environmental violations brought by the Office of the Attorney General and DEQ and came after a multi-year investigation conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Shenandoah County Fire Marshal, and DEQ into Filibuster.

“Filibuster Distillery illegally dumped tens of thousands of gallons of industrial waste into a stream, not only violating state environmental protection laws but also putting the health of its community at serious risk,” said Attorney General Herring. “All Virginia businesses both big and small must abide by state and federal environmental protections, and if they fail to do so I will make sure they are held accountable. I want to thank the Shenandoah Fire Marshal and DEQ for their partnership on this case and their continued dedication to protecting our environment.”

“DEQ takes our mission to protect the environment very seriously, and this case demonstrates that mission in action,” said DEQ Director David Paylor. “OAG’s prosecution of this case not only led to directing funds back into the impacted community but sent a strong message that environmental crimes will not be tolerated.”

 

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For offshore wind aspirations to become reality, transmission hurdles must be cleared

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Dominion Energy installed two test turbines to generate power 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach as a precursor what the company hopes will be the largest offshore wind project in the United States. (Dominion Energy)

 

President Joe Biden’s administration laid out ambitious additional goals last month to boost offshore wind power generation, one of the American renewable energy industry’s emerging wide open frontiers.

The federal announcements come as coastal states across the country are increasingly setting offshore wind energy targets, seeking to capture not just clean energy but the potentially big economic benefits of their ports serving as hubs for the vessels, blade manufacturing, cables, and other infrastructure needed to get turbines more than 850 feet tall installed miles out at sea.

But amid news releases touting megawatt targets and jobs, there’s been less attention on the challenge of bringing all that electricity ashore and connecting it to a grid that was designed to bring power to the coast, not the other way around.


“It is so exciting to see the goals put forward and it’s a great signal and clear signal to the industry,” said Maddy Urbish, head of government affairs and market strategy for New Jersey at Ørsted North America. The Danish company, a world leader in offshore wind, currently has 5,000 megawatts of projects under development or under construction in U.S. waters.

“So that’s incredibly encouraging and exciting for the industry. When we get down to the challenges we see from the grid it becomes immediately less sexy,” Urbish said.

A sea change

With nearly 95,500 miles of coastline and steady wind resources offshore, developers like Ørsted see vast potential in the U.S. market. The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that domestic offshore wind generation potential is roughly equal to double the nation’s total electric demand. What’s more, about 80% of U.S. electric load is in coastal or Great Lakes states near offshore wind resources.

“We’ve significantly increased our workforce here in the U.S. and that’s in direct response to the potential here,” Urbish said. “The U.S. is a key market for Ørsted at this point.”

Predicted mean annual wind speeds at 90 meters in height along the U.S. coast. Areas with annual average wind speeds of seven meters per second and greater at that height are “generally considered to have a wind resource suitable for offshore development,” according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (Image courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

 

New Jersey just announced a new 11,000-megawatt offshore wind target, the largest in the country. Virginia’s Dominion Energy is pushing to get its 2,600-megawatt commercial project finished by 2026, and the state wants a total of 5,200 megawatts by 2034. Maryland has approved more than 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity. North Carolina has a goal of 8,000 megawatts by 2040.

Massachusetts is contracting for 5,600 megawatts of offshore wind by 2027. Maine says its initial goal of 5,000 megawatts by 2030 is “not realistic at this point” but still considers offshore wind “one of our state’s largest untapped clean energy resources.” Louisiana, with a large skilled offshore oil and gas workforce that is partially repositioning for offshore wind, aims for 5,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035 in its most recent climate plan.

And the new Inflation Reduction Act undoes a Trump administration moratorium on federal offshore wind leases in the Southeast, potentially opening up new opportunities for Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida, though the Sunshine State’s potential is seen as limited because of a lack of strong, sustained winds near the coast.

However, getting all that power to electric consumers will require billions in upgrades to the electric grid and a whole lot better regional planning by states and grid operators, experts say.

“Offshore wind is big,” said Simon Mahan, executive director of the Southern Renewable Energy Association, a trade group for large renewable energy and energy storage companies. “When you bring it ashore, it’s gonna have an effect on nearby generation regardless of market structure. They’re the size of nuclear reactors. … So it’s really important to do good studies.”

‘A big job’

Until fairly recently, renewable energy advocates said there had been less emphasis by policymakers and grid managers on transmission infrastructure upgrades and the comprehensive regional planning needed to make mass offshore wind a reality, though the federal government and states are starting to come to grips with the scope of the problem.

“There needs to be a lot more done than what’s being done right now and people are starting to realize that,” said Walt Musial, principal engineer and offshore wind platform lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “The integration of this is going to be a big job and something we have to start working on soon. These transmission projects can take longer to build than the plants themselves.”

With relatively small, stand-alone wind projects, it’s often feasible for developers to find their own solutions to interconnection, said Mike Jacobs, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists who focuses on renewable energy and the electric grid. Indeed, wind developers with projects further along in the pipeline can take advantage of old thermal generation sites — like Ørsted plans to do with the former B.L. England coal-fired power plant in Upper Township, New Jersey, south of Atlantic City — as points of interconnection because of the existing grid infrastructure there.

But with the potential scale of American offshore wind energy and the huge targets proposed by states like New Jersey, project-by-project transmission solutions won’t work.

“Now you talk about 1,000 megawatts at a time. And New Jersey wants 10 of those. The transmission needed to be upscaled on shore is significant and needs to reach further inland,” he said. “The cable you brought to the nearest connection point from water to land is going to run into something that’s going to be inadequate and needs to be upscaled.”

‘Better than nothing’

That means billions of dollars in upgrades will be necessary to accommodate the offshore wind buildout contemplated by state and federal leaders. In Virginia, Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility, estimates the transmission upgrades required as part of its $10 billion 2,640 megawatt wind installation will be about 16 to 17% of the total project cost, a company spokesman said.

PJM Interconnection, which runs the electric grid in all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, estimated that injecting offshore wind generation (it studied scenarios ranging from 6,416 megawatts up to 17,016 megawatts) into the existing onshore transmission system would require anywhere from $627 million in a short-term scenario to as much as $3.2 billion in long-term scenarios, per a study released last year. That study only examined upgrades that would be necessary for existing infrastructure, not any “sea-to-shore or any offshore transmission networks.”

“They do require a fair amount of upgrades to the traditional land-based transmission system,” said Ray DePillo, director of development for offshore wind for PSE&G, New Jersey’s largest utility. “That’s a lot of megawatts to put into a single point or multiple points into the transmission system.”

Offshore wind coastal interconnection points identified by PJM in a 2021 study. (Image courtesy of PJM Interconnection)

 

PSE&G has partnered with Ørsted on Coastal Wind Link, a series of offshore stations that will connect multiple wind farms to the grid at a single onshore point rather than having every offshore wind farm connect using its own cable.

That proposal is among a series of transmission bids New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities will consider under a deal it reached with PJM Interconnection. Generally, PJM would be responsible for planning transmission upgrades and allocating costs to accommodate individual offshore wind generation projects as part of the interconnection process.

But with a giant backlog in PJM’s interconnection queue driven by a flood of new renewable projects and an overhaul underway, New Jersey and PJM negotiated the State Agreement Approach, which “enables a state, or group of states, to propose a project to assist in realizing state public policy requirements as long as the state (or states) agrees to pay all costs of any state-selected build-out.” PJM, in turn, is seeking transmission bids on the state’s behalf in coordination with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. It received more than 80 proposals ranging in cost from $1.2 billion to more than $7 billion, depending on various scenarios, PJM said, though those costs don’t necessarily include onshore upgrades. The board will ultimately decide what gets built.

“New Jersey came to realize that if they wanted to do this large and fast, they had to take the matter into hand,” Jacobs said.

New Jersey ratepayers will shoulder the cost of the transmission upgrades themselves, even though those grid improvements may have broader benefits for reliability beyond the state’s borders.

“This is a good news and bad news story,” Jacobs said. “The benefits from New Jersey doing this will flow beyond New Jersey. … What we’re doing is having the states fill a gap that was not expected and should not need to be done.”

Rob Gramlich, founder and president of consulting firm Grid Strategies, called the solution “highly suboptimal.”

“But I agree with New Jersey that although it’s suboptimal, it’s better than nothing,” he said.

At the heart of the friction is the traditional guiding principle of interconnection, those new generators should pay for the transmission upgrades necessary to connect them to the grid because grid managers like PJM haven’t generally looked for broader benefits to the system, critics say.

That model was tolerable when the new generators were large gas power plants that could be sited close to existing interconnection points and high voltage lines, but not so much now with hundreds of smaller, more diffuse solar and wind projects that are trying to connect to the grid, Gramlich added.

“The flaws of that system are now quite evident to everybody,” he said.

Tackling transmission

A new proposed rule by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission aims to quantify better the broader benefits of transmission upgrades, which some renewable energy proponents say could grease the wheels for the buildout required to decarbonize the grid. And the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes $100 million specifically earmarked for offshore wind transmission planning, modeling, and analysis.

“The fact of the matter is we need more studies, we don’t know what we don’t know,” said Mahan of the Southern Renewable Energy Association. “The IRA funding is there to help solve some of this problem.”

There are ongoing studies as well.

Melinda Marquis, offshore wind grid integration lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is leading a Department of Energy study expected to be finished next year that will identify optimal interconnection points along the Atlantic coast. It’s one of several seeking answers to how best to incorporate offshore wind into the grid, Marquis said, and states like New York, which is pushing for 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035, have done their own studies. 

“The way offshore has been deployed in the North Sea, in England, for instance, is the same way the very early offshore wind plants in the U.S. are developing. That is where each offshore wind plant builds one radial connection to shore. … So each developer is picking the cheapest, best place to inject the power,” Marquis said. “There’s a limited number of points of interconnection along the Atlantic.”

(Image courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory via the U.S. Department of Energy)

 

Right now, there aren’t many incentives for developers to share interconnection and transmission infrastructure, Marquis said. Her group’s study will quantify costs under various build-out scenarios, compare different transmission technologies, explore implications for grid reliability and examine effects on marine life and fisheries.

“The ocean is really a pretty crowded place,” she said, adding that the study is incorporating data on marine sanctuaries, national wildlife refuges, reefs, seafloor sediment, shipping lanes, fishing grounds, and military areas, among others.

“We hope that the results of our study will be very helpful for the people who make decisions about the way transmission is expanded, and how it is built, and we hope this will lead to a very resilient, reliable grid with a very low cost to the ratepayer that minimizes impact on marine species and the marine environment,” Marquis said.

She noted that representatives from major U.S. utilities and grid operators are participating in the study.

“The Department of Energy really understands this, and they’re funding us to tackle this,” she said.

‘All of the above’

Meanwhile, similar to New Jersey, other states are realizing the importance of taking the lead on transmission planning. New York wants offshore wind projects connecting to shore to be “meshed ready,” which means being able to share sea-to-shore connection infrastructure among different offshore wind plants rather than each one having a separate connection to shore. PJM says it’s talking with other states about how to upgrade transmission to meet its energy goals.

“We have had exploratory discussions with our states to pursue similar goals like NJ, but nothing formalized yet,” Ken Seiler, vice president of planning, said last month, adding that the grid operator is at work on the second phase of a regional wind study “meant to identify regional transmission solutions to offshore wind and all other renewable portfolio development planned for by the states.” PJM’s counterpart in the middle of the country, MISO, which covers an area stretching from Minnesota to Louisiana, says its transmission planning has been all land-based and there are no offshore wind projects in its interconnection queue.

“However, MISO is equipped to study and evaluate any offshore projects that may be submitted in the future,” said Brandon Morris, a spokesman for the organization.

And last month, five New England states, including Maine and New Hampshire, issued a joint “request for information” seeking comments from offshore wind developers, the electric transmission industry, and others “regarding changes and upgrades to the regional electric transmission system needed to integrate renewable energy resources, including but not limited to offshore wind resources, as well as significant other new renewable resources” into the grid.

“I think this happens with all of the above, to use an energy cliche,” said Jacobs. “We will have some of the developers go ahead because they’re impatient and find the opportunities to build their own connections. We will have an institutional approach where we get the federal government and the regional operators to do what they are mandated already to do, which is to plan for a reliable, consumer-friendly open access system. All this will happen because the states will present a credible threat to these institutions that are supposed to be doing it in the first place.”

 

by Robert Zullo, Virginia Mercury


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 Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Youngkin’s energy plan calls for reevaluation of Clean Economy Act

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

In his state energy plan, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin is pushing for revisions to the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a 2020 Democratic-driven law that ordered the state’s electric utilities to decarbonize by midcentury, but he faces opposition from clean energy advocates who say the step would move Virginia backward.

The four-year plan, unveiled in front of state and federal representatives Monday at Lynchburg-based transformer manufacturer Delta Star Inc., sets the executive office’s roadmap for Virginia energy policy.

“A clean energy future does not have to come at the cost” of customers, Youngkin told the crowd before unveiling what he called an “all-of-the-above approach” to Virginia’s energy needs.


The 35-page plan pushes for periodic reviews of the VCEA; greater protections for ratepayers and the restoration of power to the State Corporation Commission, which regulates the state’s electric utilities; and increased use of nuclear energy.

Among its critics are Senate Democrats, including state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a patron of the VCEA.

“Gov. Youngkin cannot pick and choose which laws he implements,” McClellan said in a statement. “He should abandon this flawed attack on affordable clean energy and get to work implementing the laws that Virginia passed.”

Another look at Clean Economy Act

Youngkin’s plan calls for a reevaluation of the VCEA next year and every five years, stating the current grid can’t reliably serve customers if it relies solely on “intermittent” renewable sources like solar and wind.

The administration says the state will need to import energy from outside the commonwealth because of the VCEA mandates.

According to PJM Interconnection, the regional electric grid Virginia is a member of, the state was a net importer of electricity Tuesday afternoon.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, on the Senate floor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

McClellan said the VCEA’s requirements offer the right “balance” for Virginia’s transition to renewables.

With communities throughout Virginia being hit by flooding due to sea level rise and rainfall shifts linked to climate change, ” she said, “this is not the time to reverse a clean energy transition,” she said.

“Gov. Youngkin’s plan would create roadblocks and mandatory five-year-reviews that would undermine the predictability of Virginia’s energy system and make our commonwealth lose out on new jobs,” McClellan stated.

Kim Jemaine, director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, a business group that advocates for clean energy, said businesses want to know the direction Virginia is headed in terms of clean energy use. Developers of renewable energy projects prefer to have certainty about state policy as they prepare to undergo lengthy application and siting processes.

Other companies like Amazon and Lego, which recently announced it would open a site in Chesterfield, are also increasingly looking to source their energy from renewables.

Protecting ratepayers

Youngkin’s plan also pushes for the transfer of more authority to the State Corporation Commission as it oversees the utilities’ compliance with the 2018 Grid Transformation and Security Act and the Virginia Clean Economy Act.

In his plan, Youngkin suggests the General Assembly should pass legislation to allow the SCC to defer the utilities’ renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requirements. These requirements, which are outlined in the VCEA, set timelines for how much of a utility’s energy must be sourced from renewables.

He also recommends removing the use of “public interest” mandates, a legal instrument that favors SCC approval of projects. Instead, he said the SCC should have the flexibility to analyze the costs of both substitute technologies and renewable energy sources, and use “least-cost” resource planning.

Both the Grid Transformation and Security Act and the Virginia Clean Economy Act “have resulted in projects bypassing the SCC’s methodology,” the energy plan states. “At the same time, the SCC is mandated to approve them and associated cost recovery because of statutory requirements.”

Youngkin particularly criticizes Virginia energy law that allows electric utilities to impose rate adjustment clauses, or riders, on customer bills for particular projects.

According to Youngkin’s plan, legislation in 2007 authorized the use of RACs, which have led to residential bill increases of over $30 per month. The State Corporation Commission in a recent report also calculated that RACs have added roughly $36 to Appalachian Power customers’ monthly bills and $30 to Dominion customers’ monthly bills since 2007. That’s on top of average electricity prices for Virginians increasing by 47%, compared to 39% nationally, between 2005 and 2020, Youngkin’s report details.

The energy plan calls for the creation of a work group to determine how to improve the RAC structure for ratepayers and increase bill transparency.

While reforming customer rates is laudable, said Walton Shepherd, Virginia policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, it requires a massive overhaul of the system that legislators may not be willing to engage in.

Electric utility rate reform efforts quashed by Senate committee

Will Cleveland, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who has extensively advocated for ratepayer reforms at the General Assembly, said his organization “would happily work with the governor to rectify the fundamental rate making problems” but argued the report unfairly demonizes clean energy as the cause of bill increases.

“We cannot retreat from our clean energy transition,” Cleveland said. “Proven, falling-cost resources like solar, wind, and battery storage simply do not threaten reliability or affordability, as this energy plan claims.”

Although efforts to reform Virginia’s rate structure failed in 2021 in the Democrat-controlled Senate, McClellan stated that she would be open to cooperating on ratepayer protection legislation in the upcoming 2023 session. She also noted a 2022 study from Virginia Advanced Energy Economy that concluded customers will save on their bills as a result of the VCEA by 2030.

“The facts are clear: The Virginia Clean Economy Act will increase the use of more affordable clean energy and lead to a decrease in the cost of energy bills for the average Virginia family by $30,” McClellan stated.

New nuclear push

As part of a push for alternative energy sources, Youngkin’s energy plan seeks to increase the use of nuclear energy in Virginia.

Youngkin’s plan was made in consultation with the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, a body created by a 2013 law to make Virginia “a national and global leader in nuclear energy.”

Virginia currently has four operating nuclear reactors at two power plants: the North Anna plant in Louisa County and the Surry plant in Surry County, both operated by Dominion Energy.

At the moment, nuclear constitutes about a third of the state’s energy generation. Youngkin’s plan calls for increased use of the source, along with hydrogen and other alternative energies, because of the concerns linked to the “intermittent” nature of solar and wind.

“We have to be all in on nuclear energy,” said Youngkin Monday before pledging to launch a commercial small nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia in the next decade.

Nuclear will be major for Virginia’s electric grid as utilities decarbonize, regulator says

But Jemaine said small nuclear reactor technology is not established enough to be relied on as an energy source.

“We can’t wait for some future silver bullet,” Jemaine said.

Infrastructure for solar and wind already exists and is expected to receive a boost from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, Jemaine noted. She added that the Siemens Gamesa turbine blade construction facility coming to Hampton Roads could be eligible for the federal legislation’s tax incentives.

When asked about how realistic the administration’s plans for nuclear expansion are, both Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company sent back statements saying they were still reviewing the plan but were looking forward to working with the governor on it.

California concerns

At the end of his plan, Youngkin reiterated several talking points from the past few months challenging legislation passed by Virginia in the 2021 session to adopt vehicle emissions regulations set forth by California, adding that the state is facing grid reliability concerns.

Jemaine, Shepherd, and McClellan noted that car manufacturers are headed toward producing electric vehicles, in line with California’s recent move to ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035.

“We need to get ahead of it,” McClellan stated, adding Virginia’s choice was either to follow regulations set by the federal government, with no say, or California, with some say. She also said she would oppose any legislation to reverse the 2021 law, which has been introduced by state Sen. Stephen Newman, R-Lynchburg.

by Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury


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 Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Governor Youngkin awards grant to study meat processing facility for Fauquier County

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On October 4, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin awarded Fauquier County $20,000 from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development (AFID) Fund Planning Grant program to study the economic viability of locating a small-scale meat processing facility at the Fauquier Livestock Exchange in Marshall, VA. The Fauquier County Agricultural Advisory Committee will oversee the project as part of its ongoing efforts to increase the economic viability of opportunities for agricultural producers and by providing advice and recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on matters affecting the agricultural economy. An additional $20,000 in matching funds has been pledged by Fauquier County, Fauquier County Farm Bureau, and the PATH Foundation to study the feasibility of the project.

“As I travel across the Commonwealth, I listen to our farmers about what they need to be successful, and additional meat processing capacity is always at the top of the list,” said Governor Youngkin. “I am pleased to partner with Fauquier County and its cattlemen with this AFID grant to explore ways to increase the resiliency of Virginia’s agricultural economy and provide farmers new opportunities to be successful.”

“Agriculture is the Commonwealth’s largest private industry, and in many counties, especially those of the northern Piedmont, livestock production is what drives the agricultural economy,” said Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Matthew Lohr. “Value-added agricultural enterprises are critical to the long-term health of the agriculture industry and to the preservation of working lands. It’s important for cattle producers to have access to as many market channels as possible, and consumers benefit from access to locally grown and processed agricultural products.”

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services administers the AFID Planning Grant program, which is designed to support planning efforts and local initiatives that benefit agriculture and forestry. Since 2013, AFID Planning Grant totaling $1,063,232 have been awarded to 52 projects in 63 localities across the Commonwealth.


AFID Planning Grant applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Successful applications will demonstrate a clear need, a proposed solution, strong support from local government and the agriculture and forestry community, and the ability to provide matching funds.

For additional information on the AFID Planning Grant program, click here.

Please direct questions about the program and application process to Jennifer.Perkins@vdacs.virginia.gov.

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COVID’s effect on the nursing crisis and more Va. headlines

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The state Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• Releasing a new energy plan for the state, Gov. Glenn Youngkin repudiated Democrats’ clean-energy targets and said he wants an “all of the above approach” that heavily emphasizes nuclear power.—Washington Post, News & Advance

• Pressed on Fox News for a response to former President Donald Trump’s recent post calling Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell’s Asian American wife “coco chow,” Youngkin said: “I’m not a name-caller.”—Mediaite

• Virginia candidates Yesli Vega and Hung Cao were among 11 GOP congressional challengers who raised more than $1 million in the third quarter. Vega is running against Rep. Abigail Spanberger, and Cao is challenging Rep. Jennifer Wexton.—Axios


• Metro’s new Potomac Yard station in Alexandria won’t open until 2023 due to construction delays.—Washington Post

• COVID-19 exacerbated nursing shortages and drove up hospitals’ labor costs by more than a third. “The nursing crisis is not going to go away. It’s there.”—Cardinal News

• The Richmond School Board took a formal vote Monday to reject Youngkin’s proposed policies for transgender students.—WRIC

• An Indian restaurant in Henrico County was vandalized with racist graffiti.—Richmond Times-Dispatch

• The USS Gerald R. Ford, “the Navy’s most technologically advanced warship,” will deploy from Norfolk today after a weather-related delay.—Virginian-Pilot

• The town of Abingdon wants to cut down on loitering near the Virginia Creeper Trail.—Bristol Herald Courier

• Short Pump Town Center, the big outdoor mall near Richmond, is seeking an open container ABC license to let shoppers walk around with alcohol. The state has issued nine similar licenses so far.—Richmond BizSense

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


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 Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Youngkin, attorney general expect schools to follow transgender policies

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High school students across Virginia, including those at McLean High School, protested the governor’s revised transgender student policies on Sept. 27, 2022. Pictured is a student holding a poster that states, “The model policy is a modern travesty.” (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

As opposition to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s new policies on the treatment of transgender students grows, Virginia still lacks an enforcement plan to have school divisions adopt them.

Under new guidance published last month, schools are required to inform a student’s parent or guardian whether a student wants to change their name, nickname, and/or pronouns from how they are listed in their records, among other policy changes.

The Republican Youngkin said he expects schools to follow the law when it comes to the new guidance.


“It’s the law, and so I don’t really have a lot of patience for folks that see a law and don’t comply with it,” said Youngkin on Sept. 20.

“Protecting parents’ fundamental rights to make decisions for their children is in the Virginia code, and I fully expect that each one of the school divisions should comply,” he said.

Asked about how the Office of the Attorney General plans to enforce the new guidance, a spokesperson said only that the attorney general expects schools to comply with the law.

Not all school divisions on board with governor’s guidance

Contrary to the administration’s expectations that school divisions will adopt the new policies, which differ from those instituted during Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s term, some school districts are already showing reluctance to adopt them.

Richmond City School Board voted 8-1 to pass a resolution on Monday rejecting the governor’s model policies and “affirm(ing) its commitment to providing protections for all students regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

Board member, Jonathan Young was the lone member to oppose the resolution.

“I am sorry that some persons don’t want parents to have any say pertaining to who can share a locker room, a shower room or a bedroom with their children,” he said.

In Northern Virginia, Alexandria City school officials said in a Sept. 19 letter to community members that they will continue to “implement and develop affirming policies” for students as they wait for a public comment period on the new policies to end later this month.

The city’s mayor and council members subsequently submitted a letter to the Department of Education on Sept. 28 that said they would support the city schools’ decision to “continue the previously adopted policy and practice respecting individual rights and protecting students from discrimination due to gender expression, gender identity, sexual harassment, and transgender status.

The council said in its letter that the proposed policies remove protections for transgender and nonbinary students in Virginia’s public schools and stigmatize and undermine their dignity.

School divisions’ unwillingness to buck state guidance on transgender students isn’t new.

A state law passed in 2020 directed school boards to adopt policies consistent with guidance issued by the Northam-era Department of Education that was intended to provide protections for transgender students.

But most school boards opposed the 2021 model policies and instead opted to follow guidance from the Virginia School Boards Association that contended existing policies met the law’s requirements.

According to Virginia Equality, only 10% of schools adopted the previous policies.

Virginia school boards are required by law to “see that the school laws are properly explained, enforced, and observed.”

Additionally, state law notes that parents who are aggrieved by an action of a school board may petition the circuit court to review the action.

In 2014, after transgender student Gavin Grimm was barred from using the boys’ bathroom by the Gloucester County School Board, he sued the school division. He later received $1.3 million after four years of litigation.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, said the governor’s action should be contested in court under the Virginia Human Rights Act.

High school students across Virginia including those at McLean High School walked out in protest of the governor’s revised transgender student policies on Sept. 27, 2022. Pictured is a student holding a poster that states “I should be in Calculus not defending human rights.” (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

Nw policies require parental involvement

Youngkin’s new policies note that “schools should attempt to accommodate students with distinctive needs, including any student with a persistent and sincere belief that his or her gender differs from his or her sex.”

But they also require parental approval for any changes to students’ “names, nicknames, and/or pronouns.” Further, the new policies direct schools to keep parents “informed about their children’s well-being,” specify that student participation in activities and athletics shall be based on sex and state that “students shall use bathrooms that correspond to his or her sex, except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires.”

The policy document argues that the First Amendment forbids “government actors to require individuals to adhere to or adopt any particular ideological beliefs” and that “practices such as compelling others to use preferred pronouns is premised on the ideological belief that gender is a matter of personal choice or subjective experience, not sex.”

On Sept. 26, a five-member school board in Rockingham County failed to adopt a similar policy that would have required that a parent or guardian be notified and provide consent if a student wished to be called by any other name not reflected in their school record. The vote on the measure, which had been put forward before the Youngkin administration announced its new policies, failed 1-3, with one member absent.

Student walkouts

Last week, thousands of students walked out of their respective schools in protest of the policies revised by the Youngkin administration.

Students called on the Department of Education to revoke the draft guidelines and for school boards to “protect all students by rejecting the VDOE’s guidelines,” according to Pride Liberation Project, an advocacy group for LGBTQIA+ rights.

Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement that the guidelines make it clear that when parents are part of the process, schools will accommodate the requests of children and their families.

“Parents should be a part of their children’s lives, and it’s apparent through the public protests and on-camera interviews that those objecting to the guidance already have their parents as part of that conversation,” Porter said.

She also pointed out that the policy document states that students should be treated with compassion and schools should be free from bullying and harassment.

However, Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who along with Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, carried the 2020 legislation directing school divisions to comply with VDOE guidance on transgender students, said the changes proposed by the governor will put Virginia’s vulnerable transgender and nonbinary students at further risk for bullying and harassment.

She told the Mercury that the Northam-era policies were developed to support Virginia’s “most vulnerable students,” those who do not have supportive families and face decreased mental health and financial and housing insecurity. Now she’s concerned about the changes.

“Despite Governor Youngkin’s political gamesmanship in his quest to compete with the cruel policies of [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis and to divert attention from the issues at hand around abortion, we will continue to work collaboratively with our families and schools to assure that all students are safe and feel welcomed in their schools,” Boysko said.

Public comment period ends October 26

A 30-day public comment period on the policies is scheduled to end on October 26. The new policies will go into effect.

In less than a day after the public comment period opened, the number of responses had eclipsed the 9,086 total number of comments submitted on the Northam-era guidance.

Virginia had collected over 54,000 as of Sunday.

This story has been updated to add details about the Richmond School Board’s Monday-night vote.

 

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury


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 Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Trump allies have interviewed nearly 200 election officials to probe for weaknesses

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(Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury) Volunteers for “Operation Eagles Wings” are using surveys in eight states to seek support for conspiracy theories.


This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.

Two of Donald Trump’s most prominent allies in his fight to overturn the 2020 election are leading a coordinated, multi-state effort to probe local election officials in battlegrounds such as Michigan, Arizona, and Texas ahead of the November election.

The America Project, an organization founded by Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general, former national security adviser, and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, has so far interviewed or attempted to interview officials in nearly 200 counties across eight swing states, according to copies of notes, recordings of the interviews, and other documents Votebeat found on web pages associated with the organization. The survey questions reflect the same debunked conspiracies and misleading information about elections that Flynn and Byrne have been propagating for years.


The survey questions appear intended to detect potential weaknesses in local election systems and gather detailed information about how elections are run. Election experts say the information could easily be used to fuel misinformation campaigns, disrupt voting, or challenge results.

“It seems consistent with their efforts to really understand how to manipulate the machinery of election administration in this country,” said Ben Berwick, counsel at national nonprofit Protect Democracy, a research and advocacy group.

In 2020, Byrne and Flynn were among the Trump loyalists who devised a plan to seize voting machines across the country and dig up enough evidence of fraud to persuade state lawmakers, Congress, or the vice president to overturn the election results. Now, they are focusing their efforts on the midterm election, with new strategies. A group backed by The America Project, for example, is attempting to purge voter rolls in Georgia ahead of the election.

The surveys are part of The America Project’s latest mission, dubbed “Operation Eagles Wings,” which is organized on foramericafirst.com, with web pages for each of the swing states the group is focused on. Key to the effort is building relationships with local election officials, according to two manuals for local volunteers on the organization’s websites. The officials are asked their opinions on debunked conspiracy theories to determine whether they are like-minded individuals. Interviewers are also marking down which clerks are particularly helpful.

Berwick points out that it’s the mission of prominent Trump supporters to fill positions of power — from governors down to local clerks — with people who believe their allegations of election fraud and improprieties. Noting who does and does not support the cause, he said, may be the group’s way of determining “who will be sympathetic to their efforts in the future.”

Election officials have generally been friendly to their interviewers, but have also repeatedly assured them that their elections are fair, voting machines are secure, and voter rolls are accurate.

In Harris County, Georgia, an election official repeatedly assured the interviewer that no one voted on behalf of deceased voters in the county.

“In some counties they did,” the interviewer insisted. “They weren’t removed from the rolls. And there have been some reports. It’s down to the proof. Prove it.”

The America Project and its officers did not respond to phone and email requests for comment about the surveys.

Surveys probe administrators on debunked theories

The survey questions vary slightly by state, though nearly all ask if counties remove deceased voters from the rolls. They also request contact information for vendors who service voting machines, and whether the county will consider designating a “neutral” third-party group to provide “training and support” for poll watchers. Some ask whether voting machines are connected to the internet, and if the local election officials are confident that local advocacy groups register voters “without bribery, intimidation or coercion.”

Interviewers asked the officials whether they support counting votes using a “manual process like that used in France.” This is a common talking point of such activists, who routinely praise the country for efficiently hand-counting votes and use it as justification to end the use of vote-counting machines. “If France can do it, we can do it!” shouted Trump’s former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon on his War Room podcast earlier this year. Mike Lindell, his guest and a prominent conspiracy theorist who is also the owner of MyPillow, agrees. “Terminate the machines!” yells Lindell. There are several differences between French and U.S. elections that make hand counting more effective in that country.

Byrne and Flynn have both voiced strong support for these ideas, routinely claiming without evidence that voting machines were manipulated and that left-leaning activists routinely facilitate mass voter fraud. “Our country and its founding principles are under attack by globalists and their allies in government, Wall Street, the legacy media and by others which make-up the political left in this country,” the Georgia for America First website states. “The weapon of choice is our vulnerable election system.”

The America Project was the top funder of the Arizona Senate’s election review, and Byrne supported the now-discredited investigation of voting machines in Antrim County, Michigan. Both have said they’ll continue to work to remake American elections.

“This will be our last shot,” wrote Byrne in his book, “The Deep Rig,” which he self-published last year. The book declares: “If we do not restore election integrity by then, then next election will also be rigged [sic], and we will have tipped our way into a fascist, authoritarian dystopian version of America, run by Goons.”

“Operation Eagles Wings”

A key goal of Operation Eagles Wings is to create small volunteer teams across the country who observe the entirety of the election process, starting in part with the surveys, according to the manuals Votebeat found.

It’s the expansion of what they have dubbed “the Virginia model,” which refers to the work of Cleta Mitchell’s Election Integrity Network in Virginia to create a network for the state’s 2021 election, according to the manuals.* The America Project provided funding to that effort.

The larger Operation Eagles Wings initiative is aimed at educating “election reform activists on everything from grassroots training to election canvassing and fundraising,” according to The America Project’s website. The site claims the group provides training “for Americans who want to make sure there are no repeats of the errors that happened in the 2020 election.”

“We need to do everything in our power to protect the voting process from election meddlers who care only about serving crooked special interest groups that neither respect nor value the rule of law,” the homepage says.

Along with the surveys, the initiative encourages election skeptics to serve as poll workers and observers, perform in-person “voter registration audits,” and to visit “large farms, factories, businesses and especially care homes,” and ask residents whether anyone is forcing them to vote, according to the manuals.

Election officials’ top concern? ‘Misinformation.’

Volunteers have conducted interviews in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin, according to copies and audio recordings of the interviews that Votebeat found online. Most of the documents are stored on what appear to be unlisted pages of a site called libertyshepherd.com, which had no active homepage as of Friday, while the Florida documents are accessible from the state’s page on foramericafirst.com.

Election administrators surveyed by the group told Votebeat they weren’t bothered by the questions themselves, inviting them as opportunities to debunk misinformation.

Many election officials told the interviewers that their top concern about the upcoming election was misinformation. In Sterling Heights, Michigan, City Clerk Melanie Ryska told the interviewer that people insinuate “that we aren’t doing something right, that we are hiding something, that our [absentee] ballots are not legitimate, that we have early voting when we don’t, that we are trying to sway the vote somehow.”

Ryska told Votebeat in an interview that she is glad when people come to her for information rather than get it elsewhere.

“I just think it is great that different organizations are actually talking to clerks now and trying to get their side of the story, if you will because the misinformation dramatically hurts the election administrators, their team, the process,” she said. “Because it just creates so much mistrust in the process.”

Susan Nash, city clerk in Livonia, Michigan, said she was interviewed by two women with the group this summer. “Nothing wrong with questioning,” Nash told Votebeat. “It’s better to contact the clerks instead of getting misinformation elsewhere.”

Most interviews were conducted in person or by phone, with the interviewer filling out the survey themselves. Two election supervisors showed the completed surveys and told Votebeat the volunteers had not accurately recorded their answers.

Cortney Hanson, city clerk in Novi, Michigan, said the interviewers recorded most of her responses correctly, except for one question. They used their own words to mischaracterize the funds the city accepted from the Center for Tech and Civic Life before the 2020 election, writing that she accepted “Zuck bucks” — a term championed by some conservatives referring to the grant, which had been underwritten by grants from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

“It’s not a term I would ever use,” Hanson said.

Wendy John, the county recorder in Graham County, Arizona, told Votebeat by email that the recorded answers “did not accurately reflect my response at all.” She did not elaborate.

Loaded questions

The range of questions asked by the survey puzzled experts. Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said the survey was made up of an odd “scattering” of questions, few of which would elicit useful information about the systems used by the counties in question. He said that they would burden election officials who are already swamped with work and records requests given the upcoming midterms.

Flynn and Byrne, he said, “don’t have a good record of being fact-based and practical.”

The manuals say that Flynn and Byrne intend to post survey results publicly, something Burden said risks circulating incorrect information.

For example, several of the questions ask about security practices — such as whether counties use a specific database to remove deceased voters from the rolls. The state may use the database, but not the county —  a nuance that wouldn’t be captured by the survey.

In some surveys, election administrators were asked how many households in their jurisdiction have “more than 7 individual registered voters living at the same address.” While this appears to address bloated voter rolls, there are many instances where more than seven voters might lawfully live at the same address, such as college campuses and assisted living homes. Activists around the country have been filing voter challenges on those and other grounds, which are routinely thrown out by local election offices and courts.

At the end of the survey, the interviewer is asked to “characterize your interaction with the Supervisor of Elections as (circle all that apply): Helpful, polite, defensive, unhelpful, antagonistic.”

“They could be trying to find friends and enemies among election officials,” Burden said. “It’s really not clear. It’s just another strange part of the survey.”

The volunteer who interviewed Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards in Polk County, Florida, in June circled helpful and polite and wrote that she was “super nice, very friendly and accomodating [sic].” The volunteer who interviewed Brenda Hoots, supervisor of elections in Hendry County, Florida, characterized her as “defensive.” Below his circled response, he wrote, “One of the most defensive interviews to date.” He placed stars next to the comments.

Hoots said she always tries to be very open about their procedures and wants the public to understand elections, but the person conducting the survey got mad when she tried to clarify her answers.

“Am I defensive?” she told Votebeat when shown the survey results. “Yes. This is my job. This is what I do. When you question this, you are questioning my integrity as a person.”

Correction, Sept. 30: This article originally misidentified the Election Integrity Network as the Election Integrity Group.

Reporters Oralandar Brand-Williams and Natalia Contreras contributed to this article.

Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at jfifield@votebeat.org.

by Jen Fifield, Votebeat, Virginia Mercury


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 Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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