In the coming weeks, Virginia’s environmental and political future is set to see a potential shift. The past weeks were marked by upsets, confrontations, and accusations of corruption surrounding the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines, and as a crucial vote approaches, the future is decidedly uncertain.
The path to this moment began on November 10th, when the Virginia Air Pollution Control (VAPC) Board delayed a vote to approve construction on an ACP compressor station in the historic, majority-black community of Union Hill in Buckingham County. The decision followed two days of public deliberation over the negative impact the pipeline infrastructure could have on the region, and represented one of the first major halts in the ACP’s progress. Previously, the pipeline has sailed through the approval process despite repeated objections and concerns from within and without the Northam Administration.
“We are thankful that the Air Pollution Control Board has decided to take additional time to consider environmental injustice, site suitability, and cumulative impacts of the entire pipeline by deferring their vote on the air permit,” Virginia Interfaith Power & Light said in a statement released following the delay announcement.
This nonprofit has been one of several groups opposing the construction of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines. They shared their concerns in a September meeting with Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, whose position on the ACP and MVP has conflicted with those of members of the administration, including Governor Ralph Northam, as far back as the 2017 gubernatorial election.
In the days following the decision, however, anticipation for the impending vote was replaced with a chorus of condemnation. This was a reaction to the dismissal of Rebecca Rubin and Samuel Bleicher from the VAPC Board by the Northam administration last Thursday. According to several environmental groups, their dismissals occurred after both raised concerns about the effect the compressor station would have on the Union Hill community.
Though both of their membership terms had expired in June, the nature of their membership (which allows them to stay on the board until resignation or removal), along with a lack of explanation from administration officials, only further incensed those opposed to the compressor station, who have since called for Bleicher and Rubin’s reinstatement. The administration later named Gail Bush of the Inova Fairfax Medical Campus and Kajal B. Kapur of Kapur Energy Environment Economics, LLC as their replacements.
“We believe that Governor Northam owes the people of Union Hill, and all Virginians, an explanation of this timing, clearly interfering in the deliberation and process of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board’s permitting decision on the Buckingham compressor station,” Virginia Interfaith Power & Light said.
Denouncing the administration’s move as “a stunning assault on the regulatory process,” the Virginia Pipeline Resisters took to the streets outside the Governor’s Mansion in the Virginia State Capitol earlier this month to protest the decision, joined by members of the Union Hill community.
“The Governor’s decision has done harm to my family,” said Richard Walker, whose genealogy and landownership in Union Hill stretches over a hundred years, back to former Virginia slaves in the late 19th century.
“The governor, who I campaigned for, has flipped the script on what’s being done with this air permit decision,” Walker said. “Anything that opposes Dominion, he seems to be speaking out on… I thought he was a fair and a good person, but as far as I can tell, the decision he made yesterday is no more than a ‘Donald Trump’ move.”
Adding to the voices of disapproval was Representative Sam Rasoul, D-City of Roanoke. Rasoul’s criticism was an unplanned addition to a press conference that focused on a report from Food and Water Watch on the “outsized political power” Dominion Energy holds over both chambers in the Virginia General Assembly, and Virginia politics in general.
While the removal of Rubin and Bleicher from the VAPC Board hadn’t been fully confirmed by the administration at that point in the conference, Rasoul did champion the efforts of citizens in challenging the pipeline’s construction, calling the possibility of “the voices of the people” being ignored as a result of this decision “an injustice and an outrage.” Rasoul joins a number of General Assembly members who have praised those opposed to the pipelines and scrutinized Dominion’s operations in the state, including Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax.
“I know that this administration and whoever else is behind it – Dominion Power, etc. – you will hear from us,” Rasoul said.
Rasoul, along with Rep. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Dale City, has also introduced a House bill for consideration in the 2019 General Assembly session that would put a “moratorium” on approving energy facilities that use fossil fuels in the state, with an eye towards requiring 100% use of clean energy sources by retail electricity suppliers in the Commonwealth by 2036.
Considering the extent of Dominion’s presence in Virgina, and how easily previous pipeline permits have been approved by administration officials, the December 10 vote on the ACP compressor station will likely set the tone for future deliberations on many aspects of Virginia’s environment and politics, regardless of outcome.
Photos provided by Virginia Pipeline Resisters