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.”