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Former Virginia pollution board member questions logic of replacing her before key pipeline vote

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam removes two board members on eve of key pipeline vote.

Residents opposed to an Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station stand in front of Union Hill Baptist Church in Buckingham County, Virginia. CREDIT: Friends of Nelson County
Residents opposed to an Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station stand in front of Union Hill Baptist Church in Buckingham County, Virginia. CREDIT: Friends of Nelson County

The timing of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) decision to remove two members of Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board ahead of a pivotal vote on a controversial natural gas pipeline project was “very unfortunate,” according to one of the board members dismissed by Northam.

Rebecca Rubin, founder and CEO of international consulting firm Marstel-Day, and Samuel Bleicher, an adjunct professor with the Georgetown Law School, had raised questions at a two-day hearing earlier this month about the location and safety of a compressor station required to send natural gas through the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline project.

On November 9, at the end of the hearing on the air permit for the compressor station, the board asked for additional time to review the permit due to environmental justice concerns. Dominion Energy is proposing to build the compressor station in Union Hill, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Buckingham County, Virginia.

But last Thursday, Northam informed Rubin and Bleicher that their terms would officially expire effective November 16, even though they had sat through the hearings and had extensive knowledge of the compressor station proceeding.

The seven-member board is scheduled to vote on the Buckingham compressor station at a December 10 meeting.

In an email to ThinkProgress on Tuesday, Rubin discussed her removal from the board. The timing of the dismissals was “very unfortunate,” she said, coming as they did just prior to such a crucial vote.

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Bringing two new board members on board has interrupted “an in-depth review, by an intact board, of the record and two days of hearings,” Rubin explained. The knowledge she and Bleicher obtained over the course of the board’s review of the compressor station project is “both fundamental to a responsible vote and irreplaceable,” she added.

Northam replaced the two board members with Kajal Kapur, an energy and environmental consultant, and Gail Bush, a clinical manager at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus.

Bush is on the steering committee of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, a group that advocates for climate change solutions that protect public health and whose leaders have come out against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Samantha Adhoot, chairperson of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, expressed opposition to the pipeline project in a statement issued in August. “This pipeline threatens the health and safety of all children in Virginia, particularly those living in communities directly affected by large-scale environmental destruction for pipeline infrastructure,” Adhoot said.

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The governor’s office had not responded to a request for comment on why Northam decided to replace the two board members before for the scheduled December 10 vote on the compressor station and why he selected a replacement who belongs to an organization that has spoken out against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) decision to replace two state Air Pollution Control Board members has raised concerns. CREDIT: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) decision to replace two state Air Pollution Control Board members has raised concerns. CREDIT: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The official terms of Rubin and Bleicher had expired in June, although it is common practice for members to remain on the board until they are replaced. What’s unusual, though, is that the governor made the new appointments in the middle of an important proceeding and after the two members who were dismissed had raised important questions about the compressor station.

“We are shocked and incredibly disappointed that the Northam Administration is terminating the terms of Air Board members Rebecca Rubin and Sam Bleicher,” Harrison Wallace, Virginia policy director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in a statement last week.

Members of the Union Hill community are concerned about the environmental impact on the community. The Virginia State Conference NAACP told the Washington Post it was “deeply troubled” by Northam’s action. “We fear disrupting the citizen review board midstream is a disservice to the Union Hill community’s right to a fair and impartial hearing,” the organization said.

The $5.1 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, led by Dominion Energy, would be a 42-inch-diameter gas transmission system originating in Harrison County, West Virginia, and running 550 miles into North Carolina.

Virginian Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax) accused Northam of “proactively using state [government] process to let pipelines be built” after consistently stating that the state’s authority was limited and arguing that the future of the project was in the hands of federal regulators.

Given that one of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board’s key reasons in postponing the vote was to have more time to review the information it received during the two days of hearings in early November, it would be “more logical” and “much less disruptive of due process” to allow all of the board members who attended the hearing to participate in the December 10 vote as planned, Rubin said in her email.

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A Northam press spokesperson told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the governor’s decision to replace the member before the December 10 vote 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,” the spokesperson told the newspaper.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) provides the Air Pollution Control Board with information about the project and offers its own recommendation. But the control board has the power to approve or deny an air permit. The DEQ had recommended that the board approve a permit for the compressor station.

The Buckingham compressor station is the only part of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline over which the Air Pollution Control Board has jurisdiction, through its decision whether to grant the pipeline developers an air permit for the facility.

The compressor station already has been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors.