Northam threatens Air Board independence on eve of controversial decision

By Roberta Kellam and Dr. Vivian Thomson: 

Ed. Note:  The authors formerly served on state environmental regulatory boards. Their views are personal.

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.

The Air Board will meet on Monday, December 10, to continue its deliberations on the permit. We call on Gov. Northam to signal that the board may postpone its decision until early 2019 to give the two new members time to cast an informed vote.

At the same time, Gov. Northam should pressure Dominion Energy, the owner of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, to propose an alternative site for the compressor station that does not raise challenging issues of environmental justice.

Gov. Northam made the surprising decision  not to renew the terms of the two Air Board members In mid-November. At about the same time, he decided not to renew the terms of two State Water Control Board members, including one of us, Roberta Kellam. The other author, Vivian Thomson, was a member of the Air Board between 2002 and 2010.

News reports indicate that the governor expects the two new Air Board members to abstain at the Monday meeting.  Another Air Board member has said he will recuse himself , leaving just four members of a seven member board to take the decision.

But if the board votes on Monday, the chaos the governor has introduced into the board’s deliberations will leave the board’s decision especially vulnerable to court challenge.

It takes much time for the unsalaried, citizen members of our state environmental regulatory boards to come to grips with the interwoven technical, legal, and policy matters that underlie regulatory and permit decisions. These boards — including the Air Board, Water Board and State Waste Management Board — are all independent bodies not subject to gubernatorial dictates.

Clearly, the newly constituted Air Board must have more time to give the permit close scrutiny.

But 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.

The Air Board’s statutory authority says that, when considering permits and regulations, the Board “shall [emphasis added] consider facts and circumstances relevant to the reasonableness of the activity involved and the regulations proposed to control it, including…the suitability of the activity to the area in which it is located.”

There are additional reasons to postpone the decision. Both of us have witnessed from the inside Virginia’s bipartisan “climate of capitulation” to the state’s energy and electric utility interests, and one of us has written a book based on her experiences (Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation, 2017). The current leadership of DEQ has been complicit, giving the regulated community what it wants and fighting—overtly and covertly–board members’ efforts to impose environmentally protective permit standards and to undertake appropriately strict enforcement.

Once Gov.  Northam inserted himself into the Air Board’s processes, he threatened the Board’s independence. The governor can restore a semblance of that independence by indicating that the Air Board may postpone its decision, and by pressuring Dominion to propose an alternative site for the compressor station.

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 policymaking at the state level.


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