Gov. Ralph Northam is removing two members from the State Air Pollution Control Board, a move that comes less than a week after they raised concerns about a natural gas compressor station planned for a historic black community in Buckingham County and ahead of the board’s vote on the project.
Seven environmental groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and Sierra Club Virginia chapter, slammed Northam’s decision. On Nov. 9, the board opted to wait a month to decide on whether to approve a permit for a natural gas compressor station to serve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Some board members and members of the Union Hill community in Buckingham County are concerned about the environmental impact on the community.
Northam on Thursday informed Rebecca Rubin and Samuel Bleicher that they would be removed from the seven-member board. A news release from the environmental groups noted that both Rubin and Bleicher had raised concerns at last week’s meeting about environmental justice and pollution from the compressor station.
Their terms expired in June, but they were to remain on the board until they either resigned or the governor removed them.
The air board will meet again Dec. 10 to deliberate and vote on a permit for the compressor station.
The environmental groups said they were stunned Northam would make such a move just weeks before the controversial vote and called on him to reverse the decision.
“We are shocked and extremely disappointed in Governor Northam’s decision to interrupt the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board’s deliberation on the proposed Buckingham County compressor station,” a statement from the groups said. “Removing citizen board members in the midst of contentious debate sends the wrong message. Citizen boards must remain independent from political interference during the decision-making process.”
Ofirah Yheskel, Northam’s press secretary, said potential candidates had been interviewed and the governor’s decision had nothing to do with the upcoming air board vote.
“He’s not making the decision now because of anything pending before the air board,” she said.
Northam has chosen two replacements, but Yheskel declined to name them. She said an announcement could come soon.
“It depends on when we get the paperwork back,” she said
Asked why Northam didn’t wait until after the Dec. 10 meeting to avoid the perception that the permit was a factor, Yheskel said, “The governor has arrived at his decision.”
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, called Northam’s move “terrible” because, he said, so many people have worked so hard for what they believe in.
“For that voice to be dismissed with the stroke of a pen is an injustice and an outrage,” Rasoul said Thursday in Richmond at a previously scheduled news conference, in which a group called Food & Water Watch released a scathing report on Dominion Energy and its influence over Virginia’s politicians. “This administration and whoever else is behind it — Dominion Power, etc. — you will hear from us.”
Harrison Wallace, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network & CCAN Action Fund, issued a statement saying the people of Union Hill deserved a hearing by the full board.
“Governor Northam has now officially taken ownership of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and ownership of this compressor station, a facility which involves strong elements of environmental racism,” Wallace said in a statement. “The governor must understand that with today’s action, the public will now hold him responsible for all the future harm to water, the climate, farmland, and human life that now could come to Virginia.”
Dominion Energy is the lead developer of the proposed $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would transport natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia, through Virginia, to southeastern North Carolina. A spokesman for Dominion Energy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Northam’s move.
During last week’s board meeting, a Dominion official outlined a $5.1 million package the company has pledged for improvements in the Union Hill community, based on “successful completion” of the pipeline.
Carlos Brown, senior vice president and general counsel at Dominion, said he negotiated the proposed package with residents of the community after years of discussion. The package includes creation of a full-time rescue squad, expansion of emergency 911 service and construction of a community center.
Northam also replaced two members of the State Water Control Board, which approved a water quality certification for the Mountain Valley Pipeline last December.
Board chairman Robert Dunn, who voted for the approval, and member Roberta Kellam, who voted against it, were not reappointed to terms that expired earlier this year.
The water board was not expected to take any additional action on the Mountain Valley project at the time of the replacements.
The new appointments are Paula Hill Jasinski of Richmond, president of Chesapeake Environmental Communications and Green Fin Studio, and James Lofton of Greene County, assistant chief counsel for airports and environmental Law for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Staff writer Laurence Hammack contributed to this report.