Gov. Ralph Northam will replace two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board and at least one member of the State Water Control Board more than four months after their terms ended.
Notably, the decision to replace the two members of the air board — Rebecca Rubin and Samuel Bleicher, whose terms ended in June — comes a week after the board delayed a vote on a permit for a contentious pipeline compressor station for Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
The board was scheduled to take up the permit again next month.
Both boards have wrestled with key permits for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The water board also wrangled with a permit for the separate Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is being developed by EQT Midstream Partners of Pittsburgh.
Environmental groups, which provided major financial support to Northam’s campaign, were stunned and furious at the air board decision.
In a joint statement, the Virginia Conservation Network, Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, Virginia League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean Virginia and Chesapeake Climate Action Network called the move “unusual and concerning.”
The 54,000 horsepower compressor station and the array of emissions that come with it is planned for Union Hill, a largely African-American corner of rural Buckingham County, and it has become one of the most heated environmental justice issues in Virginia.
“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,” the statement says.
“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. We call on the governor to reverse this decision until the current board has finalized its deliberations on the proposed permit.”
In a separate statement, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Director Kate Addleson blasted Northam for seemingly intervening in the board review after pledging to let the regulatory process play out.
“The fact that our governor would replace two citizen members of an independent board before they are scheduled to decide on a crucial permit shows just how tight a grip Dominion has on our political system,” she said. “If Gov. Northam wants to truly protect the people who elected him, he will reverse this decision immediately.”
In an additional statement, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network said Northam’s move “robs” the people of Union Hill of a fair hearing by the air board.
“Gov. 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,” said Harrison Wallace, the group’s Virginia policy director.
“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.”
Roberta Kellam of the Water Control Board voted no on key permits related to the pipelines and supported revoking certifications for the pipelines earlier this year.
Kellam, who was serving her second stint on the board, said she was informed by the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office around noon Thursday that she was being replaced.
“I guess I was just surprised nobody from the secretary of natural resources’ office called,” she said in an interview. “It came as a complete surprise.”
She declined further comment on the decision.
“I would like to thank the DEQ leadership, DEQ staff and my fellow board members for their hard work and friendship. I would also like to thank all members of the public who write letters, attend public hearings and otherwise let the decision-makers know how a government decision could impact the waters of the commonwealth. Let us never take the water for granted and always strive to protect it for future generations,” Kellam wrote.
A source with knowledge of the changes told the Mercury that Robert Dunn, the chairman of the water board whose term also ended in June, is also being replaced.
In an interview, Dunn, who voted in favor of issuing permits for the pipelines, said he was “in limbo,” and expected a decision on whether he was staying on the board in the next few weeks.
Bleicher said he couldn’t comment on the situation and deferred to the governor’s office. Rubin couldn’t be reached.
“The terms of two members serving on each of these boards expired at the end of June,” Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel wrote in a statement. “The governor is exercising his statutory authority to appoint members of his choosing to these board seats.”
The governor’s office did not explain why the changes are happening more than four months after board members’ terms expired.
Northam isn’t always prepared with immediate replacements for citizen boards, and can decide to appoint new people at any time, said Maribel Castañeda, coordinator of gubernatorial appointments in the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
The governor has not announced new appointments.