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Maryum Elnasseh

Air Board Approves Permit for Buckingham Compressor Station

Pipeline

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The State Air Pollution Control Board voted 4-0 Tuesday to approve a permit for a natural gas compressor station in a historic African-American community in Buckingham County – a decision that left environmentalists and residents of the Union Hill community in tears. (All photos by Maryum Elnasseh)

By Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The State Air Pollution Control Board voted 4-0 Tuesday to approve a permit for a natural gas compressor station in a historic African-American community in Buckingham County — a decision that left environmentalists and residents of the Union Hill community in tears, with at least one protester hauled off in handcuffs.

The proposed Buckingham Compressor Station is a component of the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile-long natural gas pipeline running through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

Since finding out about the proposed ACP in 2014, Buckingham residents — along with environmentalists across the state — have fiercely opposed the project. They said the pipeline would pose a threat to air and water quality and to people’s health.

However, state officials have said the project would be built and operated safely.

“The final draft permit has more stringent requirements than any similar compressor station anywhere in the United States,” said Richard Langford, who chairs the Air Control Board.

Langford’s comments drew several outcries from attendees — many of whom turned around with their backs to the Air Control Board in silent protest.

With a heavy Virginia State Police presence in the building, Langford was quick to ask officers to escort out of the room audience members who spoke up during the meeting. Attendees who resisted orders were forcibly removed.

Following comments by Langford, Air Control Board member William Ferguson said there is a proven need for the pipeline, which would be built by a consortium led by Richmond-based Dominion Energy. Supporters say the project is needed to provide a low-cost supply of energy for Virginia and neighboring states.

Critics dispute that. In March, attorneys with Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed litigation on behalf of the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Wild Virginia, challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s “failure to demonstrate that the pipeline is actually needed by the public.”

“The groups contend that the overwhelming evidence shows the true purpose of the ACP is to provide profits for the shareholders of the pipeline’s financial backers, Duke and Dominion, at the expense of those utilities’ ratepayers,” the Sierra Club stated in a press release.

In a 2016 report, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Appalachian Mountain Advocates found that the “region’s existing natural gas infrastructure is more than sufficient to meet expected future peak demand.”

“Making money for Dominion is not your job,” a member of the audience said in response to Ferguson’s comments.

Opponents of the pipeline have voiced concerns regarding Dominion’s influence over Virginia’s politicians.

In November, Gov. Ralph Northam removed two of the Air Control Board’s seven members — Samuel Bleicher and Rebecca Rubin — after they raised questions about the compressor station’s “disproportionate impact” on Union Hill.

Both members’ terms had expired in June, but they had been allowed to remain on the board until they resigned or the governor removed them. There are over 200 other people whose terms also expired in June still serving on Virginia boards and commissions.

Shortly after being removed, Bleicher questioned on his Facebook page if Dominion was involved in the decision. “You decide for yourself,” Bleicher wrote.

Dominion donated about $100,000 to Northam’s gubernatorial campaign in 2017. Last week, Dominion co-hosted a fundraiser for Northam’s political action committee, “The Way Ahead.”

David Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, accepted gifts from Dominion in 2013 — including a trip to the Masters golf tournament in Georgia. He was seated next to the four Air Control Board members while they voted Tuesday morning.

As the meeting adjourned, attendees burst into chants of “protect our children” and “shame, shame, shame.”

Legislators Host Town Hall for Henrico Constituents

By Kaytlin Nickens and Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

HENRICO -- With the federal government shut down over an impasse between Democrats and Republicans, state legislators from both parties emphasized bipartisanship at a town hall meeting Wednesday evening at Tuckahoe Library.

“This is the year that Virginia needs to come together,” said Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico.

More than 100 constituents came to hear Rodman, fellow Democratic Dels. Schuyler VanValkenburg and Dawn Adams, and Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant discuss taxes, education and the polarized political climate.

‘Conforming’ to federal tax overhaul

A key issue when the General Assembly convenes next week for its 2019 session is “tax conformity” — whether Virginia should adjust the state tax code to align with the federal tax overhaul approved by Congress in 2017.

VanValkenburg called conformity “a good thing.” He said it would simplify the tax-filing process and help maintain Virginia’s reputation as a business-friendly state.

Virginia would see an increase in state tax revenues through the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. A related issue is what to do with that money. Rodman and VanValkenburg want to increase state spending on education.

“In terms of investing, our schools need funding,” VanValkenburg said.

However, Dunnavant said she favors returning to taxpayers the additional state tax revenues that result from tax conformity. She said she will propose legislation to double the standard deduction when filing state income taxes.

“We still have plenty of money to live within our means and make the investments we need to make, but we really shouldn’t be taking money that isn’t ours,” Dunnavant said. “We should be returning that to the individuals that surrendered it.”

Dunnavant’s comments were the only ones to draw the audience’s applause.

School counselors and other education priorities 

VanValkenburg, a teacher at Glen Allen High School, said he supports increasing the number of school counselors as well as school resource and safety officers.

Dunnavant agreed about the need for more school counselors. She also suggested adding behavior analysts — specially licensed individuals who go into classrooms and help manage students.

“When we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, a lot of that has to do with kids being sent out of the classroom because they’re having behavioral problems,” Dunnavant said.

She proposed funding one behavior analyst for every five schools so that the analyst could spend one day a week at each school.

Adams expressed concern about school shootings. After the shooting in Parkland, Fla. in February, Adams said she conducted research on school shootings since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Adams said the most common thread is that the average shooter is a white male with no prior mental health diagnosis, and that an age in the ballpark of 17 years old is not uncommon.

“Many of the shootings — more than 50 percent — were as a result of some kind of emotional upset,” Adams said. “It all speaks to the idea that we need to teach our children how to communicate, how to deal with their problems, how to cope better with life.”

Rodman, who serves on the House Education Committee with VanValkenburg, said she is sponsoring a bill to address the teacher shortage in Virginia. It would require the Virginia Department of Education to monitor and address the number of teacher vacancies each year.

“If there’s nothing we can come together on in a bipartisan way, it is for us to come together for our teachers,” Rodman said.

Bipartisanship in an age of increasing polarization

The legislators were asked how they will work together to continue making Henrico a place where constituents want to raise their families.

“I think we all work bipartisan all the time,” Dunnavant said.  Last year, for example, she co-sponsored with Democrats a bill expanding access to cannabis-based oils to treat or alleviate the symptoms of diseases and other diagnosed conditions.

Adams agreed, emphasizing the importance of listening to people who have different ideas.

“I think that’s the only thing you can do to be a good delegate or a good senator is to communicate well and try to come up with solutions,” Adams said.

VanValkenburg said he hopes to have Republicans co-sponsor his education bills.

“There’s compromise to be had on all of this stuff,” VanValkenburg said. “And I think there’s a coming together that’ll happen.”

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