RICHMOND, Va. — Outside the gates of the Executive Mansion on Friday, people protested Governor Ralph Northam’s decision to replace two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board.
Samuel Bleicher and Rebecca Rubin were notified of their removal yesterday, according to the Governor’s Office as well as a number of advocacy groups. Both of their terms on the board had expired in June.
Department of Environmental Quality officials say the board members usually continue to serve in their position until a new appointment is made.
“The Governor is exercising his statutory authority to appoint members of his choosing to these board seats…We have been reviewing a field of very qualified applicants and the Governor has arrived at his decision,” Communications Director for the Governor’s Office Ofirah Yheskel said.
An announcement was made Friday that Gail Bush, the Clinical Manager of Inova Fairfax Medical Campus, and Kajal Kapur, the Principal of Kapur Energy Environment Economics, are the new appointments to the board.
Advocates say this change on the board is controversial, given a major vote coming up.
On Dec. 10, the board is expected to make a decision on a permit for an air compressor station proposed for Buckingham County. This is the last approval needed for the company to start constructing Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline in the Commonwealth, according to company officials.
The pipeline spans 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, and there are three air compressor stations throughout the network. Air compressors help manage pressure and flow of natural gas through a pipeline. Construction has already started in the other two states.
According to the company, ACP is expected to bring nearly $400 million in energy cost savings to customers and $28 million dollars in local tax revenue.
The decision was pushed back to December after two hearings were held last week with the Air Pollution Control Board. A number of residents from Buckingham County’s Union Hill spoke out at the meetings, saying it could impact the health of their families.
Some, like Richard Walker, returned to Capitol Square Friday to protest the recent decision.
Walker is the 5th generation descendant of Taylor Harper, a freed slave who received property in Union Hill. He says some of his family members would live within about 800 yards of the compressor station.
“Because this is my family. I have sick, elderly family there that this will probably cause their death,” Walker said.
Walker had campaigned for Northam when he was running for Governor. Now, he’s second-guessing the Governor’s actions.
“I’m appalled at what the Governor did in midstream…As far as I’m concerned, he’s in Dominion’s pocket,” Walker said.
Amid these concerns, some residents at last week’s meeting did mention how it could bring jobs and opportunities to the county. Dominion Energy is also giving $5 million to build a new community center and outdoor recreation area for residents of Union Hill. They also mentioned to the board and residents last week that a community liaison is working with residents.
The Union Hill community is historically African American. Many advocates and residents spoke during the public comment period at last week’s hearings about environmental justice concerns.
This is an issue former board member Rubin addressed as they discussed possibly deferring action on the permit decision to another meeting. She suggested that the board and Department of Environmental Quality should not only look at the emissions impacts of the compressor station but the pipeline project as a whole.
“I am not entirely satisfied by what I perceive to be the narrow interpretation of where our authorities lay. I think it is very difficult to look at just the compressor station without taking into account the broader potential emissions impacts from the pipeline,” Rubin said in the meeting.
Bleicher also raised concerns about the scope of the board’s authority when it came to the compressor station’s impacts on water quality, suggested air and water impacts from the emissions go hand in hand.
When asked why the State Air Pollution Control Board members were not replaced in June when their terms expired, the Governor’s Communications Director emphasized that the Governor has been working to make this decision over time.
“The Governor’s decision is not because of anything pending before the air board. Again, their terms expired in June and the Governor has statutory authority to appoint the members of his choosing to boards,” Yheskel said.
The State Air Pollution Control Board is expected to make a final decision on the Buckingham Compressor Station at their meeting on Dec. 10.
New appointments were also made to the State Water Control Board. Those board members’ positions had also expired in June and held their seats until new appointments were made by the Governor today.