by Jon Sokolow
The scandal created by Governor Northam’s decision to rig a crucial regulatory board vote on a pet project of Dominion Energy just got worse.
On January 8, four members of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board voted to approve an air permit for Dominion’s massive proposed compressor station in the middle of Union Hill in Buckingham County. Union Hill, according to a door to door study conducted over a two year period, is an 83% minority, predominantly African American and historic community founded by Freedmen after the Civil War. Dominion chose Union Hill to build the only compressor station in Virginia for the 600-mile, $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
The vote on the highly controversial project took place after Governor Ralph Northam purged two members of the board, Samuel Bleicher and Rebecca Rubin, in November, apparently because they had asked questions about the history and composition of Union Hill, questions that are central to whether the project is a case of environmental racism. And last week it was revealed that one of the board members who voted on the compressor station has business ties with Dominion Energy.
When the two purged board members were dismissed in November – six days after they raised questions about the project – there was a whirlwind of criticism, with the State NAACP saying it was “deeply troubled” because “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.”
Northam’s spokesperson announced the appointment of two replacement members and then, in a move that was puzzling at best, stated that the new members would not be voting on the Union Hill project. When the board voted on January 8, it also announced – without explanation – that the new members would not be voting. No one claimed that the new members had recused themselves. They simply “would not be participating”.
Now, according to documents produced under the Freedom of Information Act and published here for the first time, it turns out that at least one of the new board members wanted to participate in the Union Hill compressor station review.
In fact, she actually asked – in writing – to participate.
In an email to the Governor’s office dated November 17, new Air Board member Gail Bush wrote “I’m looking forward to a thorough orientation on overall process and the current pipeline/compressor station issue.”
When she wrote her email on November 17, Bush already was a full-fledged member of the Air Board. Two days earlier, she had been informed by the Governor’s office that “you have been appointed to serve a four year term beginning 7/1/2018….”
It also was clear that Bush had expertise on questions that are central to the Union Hill compressor station, namely to what extent the pollution caused by the daily belching of a toxic soup of methane, benzene, particulate matter and other pollutants would adversely affect the health of the African American community in close proximity to the facility.
According to her resume, Bush is a licensed respiratory therapist with more than twenty years’ experience in the Virginia health care system. She has spent the past ten years as a Clinical Manager for Inova Health Systems, where she oversees respiratory care team leaders and therapists. She also is a member of the leadership board of the Mid-Atlantic American Lung Association.
And Bush is a member of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, whose mission is to advocate “for climate change solutions that protect the health of our patients and communities.”
It is not clear exactly who decided that Bush and her fellow new appointee Kajal Kapur would not be allowed to vote on the Union Hill permit. Nor is it apparent what role Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor, whose agency oversees the Air Board, played in that process.
What is clear is that Virginia legislators have the power – right now – to get some answers. The Virginia State Senate is poised to consider whether to confirm Paylor’s appointment as Director of DEQ. The nomination apparently has flown under the radar, with no one asking any questions or requesting any hearings, until people got wind of it and started making some noise. But the Senate has the power to send the nomination back to committee, where proper hearings can be held.
Among the questions Paylor should be asked:
Why was Gail Bush barred from voting on the Union Hill compressor station – and by whom?
Why did Paylor’s agency falsify population data to cover up the fact that Union Hill is 83% minority, predominantly African American, and instead claim it is majority white?
Why did Paylor not advise the Air Board in December that the Virginia Department of Health was prepared to commence an actual study of the health status of the residents of Union Hill before the compressor station permit was considered? Why, as we wrote here, did Paylor lie to the Air Board about the feasibility of a health assessment.
Would not the health of the residents of Union Hill – 59% of whom have preexisting conditions like asthma, COPD and other serious health ailments according to a door to door survey – be important?
These are precisely the kinds of questions an experienced respiratory therapist – someone like Gail Bush – might ask.
If she had had the chance.
And while they are at it, Senators should ask why did Paylor attack State Water Control Board member Roberta Kellam “with such ferocity that I felt compelled to defend myself in writing,” accusing her of “working for the opposition” for raising questions about pipeline impacts on water quality in southwest Virginia. And what role did Paylor play in Kellam being fired on the same day the two Air Board members were dismissed?
Who silenced Roberta Kellam and Gail Bush? Who decided to fire Samuel Bleicher and Rebecca Rubin? And why?
Chances are David Paylor knows the answers to those questions.
Someone should ask him.