Following intense criticism from environmental groups, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said Monday that two new appointees to the State Air Pollution Control Board will not be seated until after a Dec. 10 meeting when the board is scheduled to take a controversial vote related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Northam announced Nov. 15 that he was removing two of the seven board members. The announcement came less than a week after the two had expressed concerns about a compressor station planned for a historically black area of Buckingham County, something that is also causing environmental concerns for some local residents.
The air board discussed the station at its meeting Nov. 9 but delayed a vote on a permit until Dec. 10. Northam’s action six days later was met with outrage by environmental groups that said Northam was trying to manipulate the vote in favor of Dominion Energy, the lead developer of the natural gas pipeline. Some Democratic lawmakers also slammed the governor’s decision.
One of the new appointees, Kajal Kapur of Albemarle County, had applied in 2015. The second, Gail Bush of Stafford County, applied in April.
Matt Strickler, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, called them during the week after the Nov. 9 decision to delay action to tell them they were being placed on the board. Reached last week, Kapur and Bush declined to say much about their appointments.
“This is like a really busy time for me. ... I need to go right now,” Kapur said before hanging up the telephone.
“I haven’t been through the orientation process,” Bush said.
Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said by email Monday: “Given the compressed timeline the governor’s new appointees face, as well as the level of attention trained on their willingness to serve the commonwealth, they will not be seated until after the upcoming meeting of the air board on Dec. 10.”
The decision announced Monday means only five members of the air board are left to vote Dec. 10.
Yheskel has previously said the governor’s decision had nothing to do with the vote on the compressor station.
Environmental groups and the state NAACP have called on Northam to reinstate board members Rebecca Rubin and Samuel Bleicher, the two who were removed.
David Sligh, conservation director with the group Wild Virginia, said it would be impossible for the two new members to prepare for the vote, especially after not hearing testimony on the issue.
He added, “I think that it’s wrong to exclude those folks who did work hard and did prepare themselves.”
“The fact that they expressed real concerns about this permit — it is more than suspicious that the governor’s office decided to take them out of the picture.”
The terms of the two former members expired in June.
But like the more than 230 other people on state boards and commissions whose terms have expired, they were to keep serving until action was taken by the governor.
Harrison Wallace, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, issued a statement saying, in part, “There is no way around that the governor has used his power to silence the voices of two air board members before a crucial hearing for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”