Gov. Ralph Northam named new members for the state’s air and water boards a day after he ignited the ire of environmental groups by removing air board members whose terms expired months ago just as the panel weighs a crucial permit for Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“We hope these new board members are qualified, but, frankly, we have no idea who they are,” said Mike Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, in a statement.
“What we do know is that they are replacing two highly respected, well-qualified board members who dared to ask the hard questions about Dominion’s unnecessary and destructive pipeline, and that their appointments come just weeks before an important final vote on this project and on the heels of a contentious hearing where they raised serious concerns.”
The only explanation from Northam’s office for the timing of the move — the replaced members’ terms all expired in June — has been that he is “exercising his statutory authority to appoint members of his choosing to these board seats,” his spokeswoman, Ofirah Yheskel, said in a statement.
“The governor’s decision is not because of anything pending before the air board,” she added Friday.
Northam chose Gail Bush, a clinical manager at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus and Kajal B. Kapur of Kapur Energy Environment Economics, LLC, to replace two air board members.
Bush is part of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, a group of medical professionals who advocate for climate change solutions that protect community’s health, according to its website.
Kapur’s firm performs economic, policy, regulatory and environmental consulting work, providing “expert advice on these issues to consulting firms, consumer counsel offices, federal and international agencies, state and local governments, regulatory commissions and environmental quality offices,” according to its website.
‘A HUGE MISTAKE’
On Thursday, Northam removed Rebecca Rubin and Sam Bleicher from the air board. (Bleicher also serves on the board of the League of Conservation Voters).
Both of their terms expired in June, but they had continued to serve on the board, including during last week’s meeting on the proposed air permit for a Buckingham County compressor station that is part of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Bleicher and Rubin had both expressed concerns about the siting of the station in Union Hill and whether the emissions produced would have a disproportionate effect on the largely African-American community.
Dominion has said the compressor station location is a result of the proximity to the existing Transco pipeline system, which the ACP will connect to, and nothing else.
The board deferred a vote on the permit, and is scheduled to take it up again in December.
“We believe Gov. Northam has made a huge mistake and one that has immensely marred his standing and reputation in the conservation community and one that impacts overall public trust in this administration, as well,” Town said.
Town added that “the appearance that Gov. Northam replaced these board members to protect Dominion Energy at the expense of the predominantly African-American community of Union Hill is unconscionable and unacceptable.”
The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP also criticized the air board member removals.
“It was expected their term(s) would be extended due to their involvement and knowledge of such a complex and monumental project. 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 group said in a statement.
“The termination of two valued board members at this crucial juncture diminishes the ability of the board to effectively perform its assigned job. Furthermore, the governor’s action may signal to other board members that asking too many questions about an influential utility’s potential impact on a vulnerable historic community may lead to their removal.”
Northam also booted Roberta Kellam from the State Water Control Board, where she opposed permits related to the pipeline. However, Robert Dunn, chairman of that board, who voted to grant permits for both the ACP and the separate Mountain Valley Pipeline, is also out.
Northam replaced them with Paula Hill Jasinski, president of Chesapeake Environmental Communications and Green Fin Studio, and James Lofton, assistant chief counsel for Airports and Environmental Law in the Federal Aviation Administration to the water board.
Jasinski’s Studio is a marketing firm that specializes in working with environmental groups and she has a background in marine biology.
“It’s a humbling appointment, I look forward to the challenge,” she said in an interview, adding that there are a lot of controversial issues the board will take up and it shouldn’t shy away from making tough decisions.
Environmental groups said they were most concerned with the air board replacements. The League of Conservation Voters, a major Northam campaign contributor and among the most active environmental lobbying outfits in the Capitol, is familiar with Jasinski, Town said, but the rest of Northam’s appointments are unknown to the group, who provided the administration with suggestions for replacements.
Protesters outside the governor’s office on Broad Street Friday blasted the decision to remove the air board members while the permit is in play, casting it as a forceful intervention in the regulatory process that contradicts Northam’s longstanding stated deference to the boards and agencies dealing with permitting on the controversial pipeline projects.
Many saw the influence of Dominion Energy, the politically potent utility, at work.
“Dominion has used their power in the Commonwealth of Virginia, which they have a lot of, to continue their taking over and dominating the property, space, and livelihoods of minority communities, particularly people of color, and it’s time for it to stop,” said Richard Walker, a descendant of the freed slaves who founded the Union Hill community, in a statement.
Heidi Dhivya Berthoud, a member of the Friends of Buckingham group, which has fought the project, said the governor “can no longer hide behind his stated faith in the state’s regulatory agencies to protect our air, water and communities.”
“The air board did their job and listened to our well-reasoned arguments about the compressor station and stood up to DEQ’s and Dominion’s deceptions,” she said. “Now we see what happens when the truth is told.”