Category Archives: Virginia government

In the Court of Public Opinion, Northam Loses

Writing in Blue View on December 8, 2018, two former members of Virginia state environment boards ask Gov Northam to delay the decision on controversial pipeline compressor station in African-American community. Roberta Kellam recently served almost nine years on the Virginia State Water Control Board, and previously was an instructor of Environmental Law and Policy at the University at Buffalo Law School and in private practice in upstate New York. Dr. Vivian E. Thomson, a retired professor in the Departments of Environmental Sciences and Politics at the University of Virginia, is the author of three books, including Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation (2017, MIT Press), a first-person view of who wields power—and how—in air pollution policy-making at the state level.

They say, “Gov. Northam has failed the citizens of Virginia with his sudden decision to appoint two new members to the State Air Pollution Control Board just as the board is considering a controversial permit for a natural gas pipeline compressor station in Union Hill, an African-American community in central Virginia,” and call on him “to signal that the board may postpone its decision until early 2019 to give the two new members time to cast an informed vote.” And they ask Northam to pressure Dominion “to propose an alternative site for the compressor station that does not raise challenging issues of environmental justice.”

Kellum and Thomson note that “the problems go deeper in this case than the appointments chaos and skepticism about the proposed permit’s stringency. In effect, the governor, the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Dominion are saying that an historically African-American community is suitable for this compressor station. The governor seems to be ignoring his own environmental justice commission, which has pleaded for more analysis of the pipeline project’s impacts.”

And from personal experience as board members, they speak of witnessing “from the inside Virginia’s bipartisan ‘climate of capitulation’ to the state’s energy and electric utility interests.”

In an opinion piece in the Roanoke Times on December 10, 2018, Mike Ellerbrock, director of the Center for Economic Education at Virginia Tech, vicariate deacon for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, and appointed member of U.S. EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and Governor Northam’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, says bluntly, “When economics and ethics clash, bet on the dollar.”

In dismissing the report of his own Advisory Council on Economic Justice, refusing to meet pipeline opponents or even visit on the pipeline route, while meeting with Dominion’s Tom Farrell, Northam has clearly bet on the dollar.

Ellerbrock points out that, “Throughout ‘America the beautiful,’ poor and minority communities are frequently disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards relative to wealthier white neighborhoods. The differences in demographic and public health data are compelling. Hence, all federal agencies are required to identify and address issues of Environmental Justice (EJ) in their work. The EJ movement aims to protect the safety and health of underrepresented citizens who lack the political capacity to control the quality and destiny of their habitat or workplace. Note how the original draft routes of the pipelines shifted from wealthier to lower income neighborhoods.”

He illuminates the difference between an economic and an ethical approach: “Using strict economic logic, Lawrence Summers, former Harvard president, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and chief economist of the World Bank, advocated that the heaviest polluting industries should migrate to the poorest countries where they would do the least harm to humanity. Let that formula sink in. Conversely, the late John Rawls, eminent Harvard social philosopher across campus and author of ‘A Theory of Justice,’ asserted that the moral measure of a society is how well it treats its weakest members. Secular and religious ethics focus on the dignity of every human life, with liberty and justice for all.”

Letter of Support for Justice for Union Hill

Friends of Buckingham and allies crafted this letter which was sent on December 8, 2018, to the Air Board, the Governor, and other state officials. It is signed not only by impacted Union Hill residents, but by representatives of many local and national organizations.

To: Virginia Air Pollution Control Board
December 8, 2018
An Open Letter Regarding the Threat of Environmental Racism and the Proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline

There is an undeniable pattern of dangerous, polluting industrial facilities being sited in poor communities of color across our nation. “Environmental racism” is a phrase used to describe this systematic positioning.

Right now, a consortium of companies led by Dominion Energy – the largest corporate donor in state political campaigns – is attempting to place the only Virginia compressor station for its unneeded, natural gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline in the low-income, mostly African-American community of Union Hill, in Buckingham County. Many area residents trace their ancestry to the people enslaved on or near the plantation land sold for this site.

Recently, Governor Ralph Northam’s administration announced that it had dismissed two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board, which is made up of independent citizen experts responsible for evaluating the proposed air pollution permit for this huge facility. This happened six days after a November board meeting where detailed evidence of this site’s environmental injustice had been presented. The two people dismissed had stated during the meeting that environmental justice and climate change impacts must be considered in board permit decisions. In addition, Dominion submitted new proposed permit changes during the meeting, including an offer of $5.1 million to a Dominion-controlled “Union Hill community revitalization plan.” The proposed changes to the permit came 50 days after the public comment period on the permit application closed. The board voted to delay its decision on the permit until December 10.

The governor has been justly criticized for interfering with this permit decision. Not only did he announce the dismissal of the two board members, he further interfered with the board’s independence by signaling that he did not expect the new members to vote at the December meeting. It is unethical to interfere in the citizen board’s decision-making process.

Citizen boards perform an extremely important function in our democracy, providing an additional check on the regulatory process. They serve as an essential last line of defense in ensuring that the public interest is prioritized over private corporate interests.

Therefore, we strongly urge the Air Pollution Control Board to allow the public an opportunity during the December 10 meeting—prior to any vote—to respond to any new information that has been submitted after the close of the public comment period. This includes information expected to be presented by the Department of Environmental Quality about the demographics of Union Hill that would underrepresent the community’s African-American majority. Additionally, because the facts in the record show that the proposed compressor station would have a disproportionate adverse impact on Union Hill, we ask that the board deny the permit.

On August 16, the Governor’s own Advisory Council on Environmental Justice called for a moratorium on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline until completion of serious investigations of credible environmental justice issues. Governor Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring, Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler and Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor must honor the environmental justice matters in this air permit decision. It must be addressed now.

The legacy of placing toxic facilities in places where they disproportionately affect poor communities of color is unjust and unacceptable and needs acute examination. It is not right to look the other way while this continues.


Pastor Paul Wilson, Union Hill Union Grove Baptist Church
Chad Oba, President, Friends of Buckingham, Impacted Landowner
Lakshmi Fjord, Anthropologist, Friends of Buckingham, Yogaville

Governor Ralph Northam
Attorney General Mark Herring
Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler
Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor

Click here to view the 100 other signatories on the letter.

Air Board Urged to Reject ACP’s Late Efforts on Compressor Station Vote

From ABRA Update 206, December 6, 2018:

The Virginia Air Pollution Control Board has been asked to reject eleventh-hour attempt by Dominion Energy to insert new conditions and provisions into the pending air quality permit for the project’s compressor station in Buckingham County without input from the public. A December 3 letter from the Southern Environmental Law Center to Board Chair Richard Langford and David Paylor, Director of the Department of Environmental Quality, states:

Dominion proposed on November 9 that the Board condition the permit on a memorandum of understanding between Dominion and the Dominion-backed Union Hill Community Development Corporation regarding a $5.1 million investment. But whether such a condition would satisfy the requirements of §10.1-1307(E) is a question the public must be permitted to weigh in on. Indeed, we believe it would not. The governing statute does not permit site-suitability concerns—like the risk here of disproportionate harm to the historic, African-American community of Union Hill—to be swept away with the promise of money to unrelated community development projects. Further, to allow Dominion to unilaterally amend a proposed permit after the close of the comment period would invite abuse of the process and frustrate meaningful public participation.

The Air Pollution Control Board will meet at 10 am Monday December 10, 2018, in the Pocahontas Building, 900 East Main St., Richmond.

Northam and the Air Board Explained

Have you been hearing about Governor Northam and the Air Board and the pipeline but can’t quite figure out what’s going on? The Virginia Student Environmental Coalition takes a few minutes to break it down!

The Coalition is also sponsoring a rally in Richmond on Friday December 7 at 4 pm.

Students Ask Kapur to Delay Swearing-In

Members of the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition visited the office of Dr. Kajal Kapur, one of the proposed replacement members on the State Air Pollution Control Board to deliver a letter asking her to refrain from completing the swearing-in process for the Board before the December 10th vote on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline Buckingham Compressor Station.

Their letter described the detailed testimony at the Board’s public hearing on November 8-9, 2018, described Northam’s removal of two members who questioned the legal and technical bases for the permit proposed by the Department of Environmental Quality.

The letter says Northam “seems to be trying to prevent these members of an independent citizens board from acting on their deliberations and valid concerns, in order to attain a favorable vote for Dominion Energy and the advancement of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project.

“The Governor’s office has stated that you will not be seated on the Board before the upcoming meeting but will be sworn in ‘shortly’ (See Virginia Mercury article), meaning you will not be able to vote on the permit but also blocking current members from voting. Legal precedents indicate that Board members retain their powers to act until replaced by new members. It appears the Governor is manipulating this process specifically to block Ms. Rubin and Mr. Bleicher from voting on December 10. We encourage you to help preserve the independence of this citizen board and the integrity of this regulatory process.

“Your power lies in your ability to refrain from being sworn in before the December 10th vote. We strongly encourage you to exercise that power in the interest of a just and fair process for the people of Buckingham., The former board members must be given the opportunity to serve on December 10th; to vote in accordance with their professional opinions informed by hours of testimony from impacted community members, lawyers, and scientists. We, the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, believe that you must refrain from completing the swearing-in process for the State Air Pollution Control Board before the December 10th vote on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline Buckingham Compressor Station.”

The letter was signed by, “The Virginia Student Environmental Coalition on behalf of young people from Northern Virginia Community College, University of Mary Washington, University of Virginia, College of William & Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University, Piedmont Valley Community College, Hollins University, Roanoke College, Virginia Tech and George Mason University.”

Digging a Deeper Hole for Himself

Governor Ralph Northam is digging the hole he’s made himself deeper and deeper.

First, on November 15, 2018, he removed Air Pollution Control Board members Rebecca Rubin and Sam Bleicher after they questioned the permit for the compressor station at the November 8-9 Board meeting, the meeting at which the Board voted to postpone their decision until their December 10 meeting.

Then, on November 16, he announced two new appointments to the Board.

Northam’s office continues to maintain what is clearly unbelievable, saying the timing of the dismissals and new appointments had nothing to do with matters pending for the Air Board, because Rubin’s and Bleicher’s terms expired in June. However, so did those of 235 other appointees, none of whom have been summarily replaced. The hole is a little deeper.

Writing in the Roanoke Times on December 6, Jacob Hileman says, “”If we assume each board and commission member serving beyond his or her term has an equal chance of being removed on any given day by the governor, the odds of the two board members in question being randomly selected are 1 in 27,966.”

Northam made the hole he’d dug a bit deeper when he said in his November 28 appearance on WTOP that he expected the Board to vote in November and did not expect the new appointees to vote on the compressor statement permit. But we all know if that were really true, he could easily have waited to appoint the new members until after December 10 (instead of five days after the November hearing).

Then, on November 26, Northam announced he would not seat the two newly appointed members members until after December 10. Since one of the normally seven-person Board’s members has recused himself, that leaves only four Board members to vote on December 10. Quoted in the Washington Post on November 27, Walton Shepherd of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Washington Post that “The awkward lurch to now yank Northam’s new board members does not right the original wrong.”

In that same Washington Post article, “Greg Buppert, a lawyer with the Virginia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Northam’s action could leave the door open for the two removed board members to attend the meeting and vote. State law says that appointees serve until they are replaced, and these replacements haven’t come on board yet, Buppert said. Either way, the outcome does not make the Northam administration look good, he said. ‘I don’t know if this was intentional or just a remarkable stumble on the part of the administration,’ Buppert said. ‘But I think the message that the public heard was that the governor is facilitating a permit for Dominion.'”

But the hole Northam seems still to be digging for himself gets even deeper. On November 30, The Virginia Mercury reported, Governor won’t ‘seat’ new air board members, but still plans to swear them in, precluding participation of former members. According to the article, some argue that “under state law the current members serve until the moment their replacements are sworn in, meaning they could still potentially participate in the meeting barring further action by Northam — an interpretation backed by a 2013 attorney general’s opinion.” Since it would seem members could serve (and vote) until the new members are sworn in, that could have been a graceful out for Northam from his beleaguered position. But no, Dominion certainly doesn’t want the ousted members to vote, so Northam dug his hole deeper by saying he would swear in the new members, but that they would not take their seats on the Board until after the vote.

A Daily Progress editorial on December 5, quotes the Governor’s excuse, emailed to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, for not seating the new members (“Given the compressed timeline the governor’s new appointees face, as well as the level of attention trained on their willingness to serve the commonwealth, they will not be seated until after the upcoming meeting of the air board on Dec. 10.”).  The editorial then says,  “The obvious retort: Mr. Northam’s decision created ‘the compressed timelime.’ Mr. Northam’s decision created the unfavorable ‘level of attention’ — which was to some degree trained on the new members, but more accurately trained on the governor himself. …. Surely it would have been better to have left the board intact for a while longer, preserving a breadth and diversity of opinion in deciding an issue that will affect the residents of Buckingham for a long — a very long — time.”

Robert Zullo, writing in The Virginia Mercury on December 5, asks, “Can Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to yank two members off the State Air Pollution Control Board as it weighs a permit for the compressor station Dominion Energy plans for Buckingham County be seen as anything other than what it appears to be: a clumsy attempt to tip the scale for the influential utility?” He says Northam has “sunken deeper into this mess of his own making by preventing his handpicked replacements from voting on the contentious air permit next week.” And Zullo concludes, “‘It just was,’ is evidently the best answer the administration can muster for why it has now cast a deep shadow of illegitimacy over a vote on an ultra-contentious project already seen as a dubious power grab by an energy giant mainly focused on shareholder profit.”

The Washington Post refers to all this as an “ugly episode.” Many groups and individuals continue to speak out against a governor who seems to have forgotten that he promised to be a different kind of politician, one who would never lie and always operate aboveboard. The editorial board of the Staunton News Leader describes what is really happening: “There just aren’t enough people to make Northam or others in the state government care about them more than they care about Dominion. Dominion’s influence is pervasive, and it’s people like Northam who reliably do their bidding. We can be disappointed, but shouldn’t be surprised.”

How deep a hole, disappointing but not surprising, will Northam dig?