Virginia Sierra Club Director Reflects on Nearly 20 Years of Environmental Activism 

click to enlarge Glen Besa says he’ll still work, but the load will be less taxing when he retires from nearly two decades of leading the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

Scott Elmquist

Glen Besa says he’ll still work, but the load will be less taxing when he retires from nearly two decades of leading the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

For nearly two decades, Glen Besa has roamed the halls of the General Assembly, knocked on doors for environmental causes and come up with goofy gags, such as putting together a mile-long petition protesting a proposed reservoir.

The 65-year-old director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club is retiring just as the green movement is gathering new power in a state that long has been dominated by large corporate interests, such as Dominion Resources and its subsidiaries.

Besa has been a stubborn thorn in Dominion’s side. He fought against the utility’s plans for treated coal ash wastewater disposal, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that will take natural gas through Virginia, building a new nuclear reactor at North Anna and moving sluggishly toward renewable energy.

He’s also battled against mountaintop removal coal mining and Newport News’ plans to flood wetlands and disrupt shad migration patterns by building a 1,500-acre reservoir near the Mattaponi River.

Besa’s replacement is Kate Addleson, the chapter’s former conservation director, who has a degree in cultural anthropology from the University of` Texas at Austin.

On Besa’s way to greener pastures, Style spoke with him about his tenure.

Style: What are the big changes that you’ve seen in the environmental movement?

Besa: I think that the emphasis on energy and climate change is the biggest change. When I came here we were in the garbage wars. We were fighting New York state and New York City transportation of trash to Virginia. We had the benefit of Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani at the time talking about the benefits Virginians got by visiting New York and the least they could do was accept New York trash, which went over really well here in that campaign.

What about the Mattaponi reservoir campaign?

The City of Newport News had proposed a massive reservoir that would involve damming a tributary of the Mattaponi River and pumping water from the Mattaponi into that. It would have been the largest loss of wetlands in Virginia since the passing of the Clean Water Act. We were able to stop that but it took 13 years to do.

Would you say there’s a lot more activism today than there was when you first started?

There is. Fortunately, the environmental movement in Virginia has gotten much larger. There are more players now — more groups, large and small, working. I think it’s because the environmental movement has matured, and because Virginia is a swing state now. The political dynamic of Virginia being a swing state has brought in new players that weren’t here before or there were issues that weren’t here before. You have national groups like National Resources Defense Council and Physicians for Social Responsibility, which have become much more active in Virginia because of its importance as a swing state.

Has funding for environmental activities expanded likewise?

Yes, it has. The funding that goes into the Sierra Club and other groups has increased the activism because Virginia is a battleground state. People feel that making the environmental arguments here in Virginia is important in terms of influencing not just state politics but perhaps national politics as well. Virginia very well could determine who the next president might be. That factor in itself has brought more focus to Virginia from people in the state and outside the state.

Have you always focused so much on Dominion?

We were not focused on energy issues all the time. Dominion was not always the target. There have been issues that arose. But the fact that energy and climate change is now the primary environmental issue, most groups focus on it in Virginia. That’s not to say there are other issues like water and air pollution. But it includes things like the pipeline. It is an energy and climate issue.

What more has changed?

There is more money involving those issues and more activity as a result of that. A lot of people are very upset because of these pipelines. They are also upset about the fact that Dominion, and I say this because I mean this, owns the state legislature. … Dominion gets its way on just about every energy issue. We don’t believe that Dominion is the fount of wisdom when it comes to energy. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

There’s criticism of the Sierra Club on blogs saying they don’t like fossil fuel, they don’t like nuclear. What do they like?

We are not suggesting that they turn off the lights. If we had started 20 years ago making the transition to clean energy — which is what we should have done, when climate change first arose and there was evidence it was really real — we would not be in the predicament we are today with the level of sea rise and such.

What needs to be done?

What we really need to do is make real investments in wind and solar and energy efficiency. Unfortunately, those critics you reference want to do all the bad stuff first. They want to build new gas plants and nuclear power plants. Renewable energy is an afterthought.

Where does Dominion stand with renewables?

Legislators go around citing what Dominion says. One item is that Dominion says it will have built 400 megawatts of solar power by 2020. Anyone who looks at that has to laugh. North Carolina had built 1,200 megawatts just last year.

What will you do in retirement?

I’m a workaholic so I will continue to do some work. But I need some more balance in my life. So, I’ll be hiking more.

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