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‘Ugly episode:’ Northam allies slam his decision to alter board before Dominion vote

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) promised to be a different kind of politician, one who would never lie and always operate aboveboard. But his interference in a controversial vote by air pollution regulators has caused some to question those claims.

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Observers were shocked when Northam swooped in two weeks ago and replaced two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board, which was considering whether to approve a natural gas facility in a historic black community.

The board had planned to vote on the project Nov. 9 but delayed after expressing concerns about harming nearby residents. Environmental advocates said Northam used the delay to gut the agency and rig the vote for Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility and one of his political donors.

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What made it so shocking was that Northam styles himself as an environmental advocate who won’t engage in political tricks.

Calling it an “ugly episode of bad governance,” Walton Shepherd of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that “the only explanation on something like this is bad advice and bad judgment . . . and the next three years [of Northam’s term] will be something where we have to work hard to regain trust [in him].”

It didn’t help that shortly after the two members were replaced, activists spotted Dominion chief executive Thomas Farrell leaving the governor’s office. Administration officials said the meeting was related to a partnership the utility was announcing with Smithfield Foods. But to critics, it underlined Dominion’s direct access to Northam.

“None of this looks normal,” wrote progressive blogger Lowell Feld of Blue Virginia. “None of this sounds normal. None of this smells normal. Because none of this IS normal.”

Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax), a pipeline opponent, wrote in an online post, “This could be a disappointing and horrible example of abuse of power by a state official that I would not have expected from my friend Ralph Northam.”

Northam’s office says that the whole thing is a misunderstanding. The governor “had thought that [the Nov. 9] board meeting was going to be the end of this process and there was going to be a vote. Whether there was an up vote or down vote was really immaterial,” Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler said in an interview.

When the board delayed action, the governor simply decided to stick with his schedule, Strickler said. “If he was trying to get a certain outcome, the governor would have made appointments before this [originally scheduled] vote,” he said.

This week, Northam tried to defuse the situation by delaying the seating of two new air board members until after the controversial vote, now scheduled for Dec. 10. But that hasn’t cooled the criticism.

“The awkward lurch to now yank Northam’s new board members does not right the original wrong,” Shepherd said. The NRDC was among several environmental groups that gave Northam support this year for a massive rewrite of the state’s utility oversight laws — an effort championed by Dominion Energy.

Another was the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, which also was among the top donors for Northam’s election campaign last year, giving him nearly $3 million — about 10 times as much as Dominion gave him.

“We believe Governor Northam has made a huge mistake and one that has immensely marred his standing and reputation in the conservation community and one that should impact overall public trust in this administration, as well,” said Michael Town, head of the VLCV.

Both of the regulators who were removed had expressed concerns about Dominion’s plans for the natural gas pumping station. One, Samuel Bleicher, also serves on the VLCV board of directors.

“Was Dominion Energy involved in the decision? Decide for yourself,” Bleicher, an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, said on his Facebook page shortly after getting the ax on Nov. 16. “I expected to be re-appointed, but that isn’t the point. all indications are that I was removed because I sounded like I might vote against the Dominion Energy permit.” Reached by phone, he declined to comment.

At issue was an air quality permit Dominion needs as part of its Atlantic Coast Pipeline project — a 600-mile, $6 billion natural gas pipeline stretching from West Virginia through central Virginia into North Carolina. For the gas to continue flowing through Virginia, Dominion and its partners building the pipeline say they need a compressor station located in rural Buckingham County.

The chosen site is in the midst of a historic African American community called Union Hill, where free blacks and former slaves settled after the Civil War. State law prohibits placing environmentally harmful projects in areas where they would have a disproportionate impact on minority or disadvantaged populations.

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In hearings in Richmond on Nov. 8 and 9, officials with the Department of Environmental Quality countered that it was not up to the state to determine site suitability. The Buckingham County Board of Supervisors settled that question long ago when it awarded a special use permit, DEQ officials said.

Bleicher and other members of the air board disputed that and took the surprise move of delaying the vote. A week later, Northam removed Bleicher, of Arlington, and Rebecca Rubin of Fredericksburg.

Their terms had expired in June, but it’s common on state boards for members to continue serving long after terms run out.

Strickler said Dominion had no communication with the governor’s office about the air board or its members. “The answer to that is no. We don’t have those conversations with regulated entities,” he said.

The decision this week to delay seating two new appointees, first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was because of “the compressed timeline the governor’s new appointees face, as well the level of attention trained on their willingness to serve the commonwealth,” Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said.

As far as Northam’s office is concerned, that means the pumping station permit will be voted on next month by four remaining board members. One other member has recused himself.

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.”