The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Northam removes two board members ahead of crucial vote on pipeline project

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will run 600 miles from West Virginia and across Virginia to North Carolina, passes through the forests of Buckingham County, Va. (Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has removed two members of the state Air Pollution Control Board ahead of a key vote on a controversial natural gas pipeline project, drawing condemnation from environmental groups.

The air board had delayed a vote last week on a permit for a compressor station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, citing concerns that the facility was disrupting a historically African American community in rural Buckingham County.

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During a two-day hearing in Richmond attended by scores of protesters, several members of the seven-person board questioned state officials and representatives of Dominion Energy, the lead company on the $6 billion pipeline project, about why the compressor had to be located in the Union Hill community.

Board members surprised supporters and opponents by delaying action until Dec. 10, saying they wanted more time to review the matter.

Union Hill residents, many of whom are descendants of former slaves and free black families who settled there before the Civil War, took hope that the board was giving serious review to their environmental justice arguments.

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But that hope turned to outrage Thursday night as word spread that Northam was altering the board’s membership. His office acknowledged that he was removing two members whose terms expired in June but had been allowed to continue serving.

Both Samuel A. Bleicher of Arlington and Rebecca R. Rubin of Fredericksburg were among those who had raised questions last week about the location and safety of the compressor station. Northam’s office acknowledged Thursday night that the governor was replacing them but denied that it had anything to do with the pipeline issue.

“That’s not the case,” Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said via email. “The terms of two members . . . expired at the end of June. The Governor is exercising his statutory authority to appoint members of his choosing to these board seats.”

She noted that Northam also was replacing a member of the State Water Control Board under the same circumstances.

That water board member, Roberta A. Kellam of Franktown, had made a motion several weeks ago to suspend permits for both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and another major pipeline project.

The board instead voted to keep the projects under tighter review.

On Friday morning, the Virginia State Conference NAACP said it was “deeply troubled” by Northam’s action. “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 organization said in an email. “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.”

“The timing of the Governor’s decision is an affront to the board, the citizens of the Commonwealth, and conceptions of transparency and good governance,” the environmental group Appalachian Voices said via email.

It was one of seven environmental groups that issued blistering criticisms of Northam’s action. A group called Virginia Pipeline Resisters organized a protest outside the Executive Mansion on Friday, calling on the governor to reinstate Bleicher and Rubin.

Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax) took to Twitter to accuse Northam of “proactively using state [government] process to let pipelines be built” after insisting that the state’s authority was limited and arguing that the fate of the project was in the hands of federal regulators.

Northam positions himself as an environmentalist, but he has frustrated environmental groups with his support of both natural gas pipelines being built across the state.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a 600-mile project from West Virginia through central Virginia and into North Carolina. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, being built by a separate coalition of companies led by EQT Midstream Partners of Pittsburgh, is a 300-mile project that passes through Southwest Virginia.

Environmental advocates have also criticized Northam for taking big donations from Dominion, which last year contributed nearly $200,000 to his campaign for governor.

That amount was dwarfed, though, by the nearly $2.9 million Northam’s campaign received from the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group.