In siding with corporate interests against the better judgment of affected communities and citizens and ignoring key environmental issues, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has revealed a fact pattern in its efforts to suppress justice in the commonwealth.
Actions taken by the Northam administration involving the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board vis-à-vis the Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station constitute a clear abuse of power, with the fate of a largely African-American community hanging in the balance.
Strike 1: A refusal of due process
At the Nov. 8 public meeting of the air board — where the board looked out over an audience whose first couple of rows were dominated by Dominion Energy personnel — the board heard testimony on the environmental justice concerns associated with the company’s proposed compressor station.
To me, this testimony and its accompanying analytics were so compelling as to leave no doubt that a decision to place the compressor station in Union Hill would be the wrong one. Had we voted that day as was the original plan, my vote would have been “Hell no.”
As the air board heard during public testimony, compressor stations regularly release toxic emissions such as methane, nitrous oxides, particulate matter and other volatile organic compounds into the air with “blow-down events,” or “venting,” causing elevated contamination of the air and greatly increasing the risks to health for residents who live nearby. Depending on topography and wind flow direction, exposure can be up to 15 miles.
Noise is also a factor. The noise from a blow-down can last for several hours and has been compared to the sound of a jet engine taking off. There is also the potential for catastrophic risk: one reason why compressor stations are often built in remote areas is because when accidents happen, they have a wide impact radius. Despite this, no comprehensive health risk assessment involving risk factors, pathways, receptors and proximity for those closest to the proposed station had been done.
Many residents of the historically black Union Hill community who testified that day spoke to their concerns about these issues and — even more importantly, in my view — their sense that not only would they be disproportionately affected but also that they already had been “abandoned to a process that does not consider me or my human rights,” as one resident put it.
As a consequence, I shared with the board and the public attending that day my concerns for the compressor station’s unjustly disproportionate environmental effects on the Union Hill community — and, in addition, expressed further concerns for the potential environmental justice effects of the ACP as a whole as it transects Virginia.
We did not vote as planned the next day, Nov. 9, due to a couple of complicating factors.
One was the sheer volume of testimony, which some board members felt needed further deliberation and assimilation. Unanswered questions were another factor, such as how Dominion came up with its analysis of Union Hill’s population as failing to meet the criteria for disproportionate impact, whereas an anthropologist with a doctorate working door to door in the Union Hill community had reached the opposite conclusion.
Adding to the confusion, Dominion had presented during the air board meetings a $5.1 million “community enhancement” package for Union Hill — a buy-off, if you will — offering to trade quality of life for investments in local emergency services and a new community center. It was an obvious effort to manipulate the community of Union Hill and one clearly intended to circumvent further consideration of disproportionate impacts to the community.
Six days later, on Nov. 15, my phone rang at about 11:30 a.m. showing an 804 area code, and a voice from the Office of the Secretary of The Commonwealth thanked me for my service on the air board.
A few minutes later, I emailed my colleague on the board, Sam Bleicher, to say “No more air board meetings for me.” Less than 15 minutes later, he wrote back “We are both being replaced.”
Much has already been said, and written, about the removal of Sam Bleicher and me from the board, which came in the middle of hearings on the ACP compressor station during which we had each voiced our concerns about the project — in short, a refusal of due process.
And while reasonable people can and do disagree, and while others in the room including those on the board may have held opinions that differed from my own on the substance of the compressor station issues, one fact is patently clear: a real injustice was done to the values of the commonwealth when the Northam administration chose to remove Sam Bleicher and me from the board.
This dismissal in the face of our opinions, and not our removal per se, was the real transgression — a transgression that extended to our colleague on the State Water Control Board, Roberta Kellam, for her stated concerns on water quality certifications associated with the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
What followed was then a well-documented comedy of errors. The administration was still considering candidates and had not as yet finalized selections to replace Mr. Bleicher and me on the board. One might at this point ask what possible urgency or sense of panic could have driven our replacements in the middle of hearings as vital to the future of the commonwealth as those on the ACP compressor station.
Strike 2: Intentional disregard of critical issues
On May 30, 2018, the Virginia NAACP called on the DEQ to halt all construction of both the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines. Its comments, submitted to the State Water Control Board during the comment period for MVP, established its concerns for environmental justice: “Nationwide Permit 12 (Corps NWP 12) is inadequate and grossly neglects to consider the magnitude of both projects and the massive disruptions to surrounding communities and the environment that will result.”
In August 2018, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice released an extremely well-researched and documented 12-page memo to the governor, recommending “that the governor direct DEQ to suspend the permitting decision for the air permit for the Buckingham compressor station pending further review of the station’s impacts on the heath and the lives of those living in close proximity.”
The memo went even further, recommending “that the 401 Clean Water Act certifications for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline be rescinded immediately” and “ that a review of permitting policies and procedures take place and that the governor direct the Air Pollution Control Board, DEQ, and Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to stay all further permits for ACP and MVP to ensure that predominately poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life-altering disruptions.”
The memo reflects many of the contextual, environmental realities associated with ACP.
For instance, whether another fracked gas pipeline makes sense in Virginia when the nation is facing the effects of catastrophic climate change; the lack of a verified need for the pipeline in the first place; and the fact that the ACP will destroy thousands of acres of forest, disturbing some of the commonwealth’s pristine habitat and fragile geology at a time when human destruction of habitat has been identified as a primary contributor to climate change and the decline of species populations.
Northam’s administration responded by ignoring the recommendations, and, in January of 2019, by reconstituting the council.
The parallels to the air board removals are simply too apparent and too unnerving.
Strike 3: The Nexus
The problem, of course, with the recent revelations about the governor’s personal past is that they have a nexus to the administration’s intentional disregard for environmental justice.
Whether or not the governor resigns, one thing is clear: the Northam administration’s abuse of power on behalf of corporations and against the interests of citizens, their communities and the environment must stop.
The pattern of suppressing at worst and ignoring at best the opinions of those whose expertise lies in the field of environmental justice – such as the NAACP and the 2018 ACEJ recommendations – sabotages the principles designed to guard against the abuse of power on which the commonwealth rest.
This administration has got to stop putting its finger on the scale to help secure unjust outcomes.