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Northam, under fire from environmentalists, announces two new air board members

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Gov. Ralph Northam’s office announced the two new members of the state air board on Friday as the governor endured a second day of criticism from environmental groups that were stunned that he would yank two members off the board in advance of a crucial vote related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Environmental groups were shocked on Thursday when two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board, Rebecca Rubin and Samuel Bleicher, were notified by Northam’s administration that they were being removed. Both of them had expressed concerns at a Nov. 9 meeting of the board about a natural gas compressor station planned for a historic black community in Buckingham County.

Although their terms had expired in June, they would have remained on the seven-member board until the governor removed them. Northam’s decision to do so came less than a week after the Nov. 9 meeting, when the board agreed to further discuss the compressor station on Dec. 10. That appeared to environmental groups to be an attempt by the governor to influence the vote in favor of Dominion Energy, the lead developer on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $7 billion project Northam supports.

The two new appointees are Gail Bush of Stafford County, a clinical manager at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus; and Kajal Kapur of Albemarle County, principal of Kapur Energy Environment Economics LLC, according to an announcement from the governor’s office.

“We hope these new board members are qualified, but, frankly, we have no idea who they are,” Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said in a news release. “What we do know is that they are replacing two highly respected, well-qualified board members who dared to ask the hard questions about Dominion’s unnecessary and destructive pipeline, and that their appointments come just weeks before an important final vote on this project and on the heels of a contentious hearing where they raised serious concerns.

“We believe Governor Northam has made a huge mistake and one that has immensely marred his standing and reputation in the conservation community and one that should impact overall public trust in this administration, as well.”

The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP issued a news release Friday reiterating concern over potential environmental impacts of the compressor station in the historic African-American community of Union Hill. They urged Northam to reinstate Bleicher and Rubin.

“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.”

Activists coordinated by Virginia Pipeline Resisters protested outside the governor’s office on Friday.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would transport natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia, through Virginia, to southeastern North Carolina.

Northam also has appointed two new members to the State Water Control Board.

They are Paula Hill Jasinski of Richmond, president of Chesapeake Environmental Communications and Green Fin Studio; and James Lofton of Greene County, assistant chief counsel for airports and environmental law with the Federal Aviation Administration, according to an announcement from the governor’s office.

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