Nov. 29–Norfolk officials will tell you that, when it hired an “independent” expert to analyze a Virginia Natural Gas pipeline — one who had done previous work for the utility — it didn’t matter.
Richard Felder is one of three analysts the city selected, under a very tight timeline, to review the ongoing Southside Connector project. He testified in a hearing for VNG two years ago in a case unconnected to the pipeline project, city spokeswoman Lori Crouch told The Virginian-Pilot.
The consultants’ reports, as well as the safety analysis completed by experts for pipeline opponent Colonna’s Shipyard, “determine the project meets state and federal safety regulatory requirements,” she said by email.
It’s the equivalent of: Nothing to see here. Move along now.
Don’t buy it. If this is the way city staff seeks “neutral” parties, and if this is the way it handles due diligence, Norfolk residents should be aghast.
By the way, do you think VNG would’ve consented to an environmentalist playing the role of objective expert on the project? Me neither.
I asked to interview City Manager Doug Smith or City Attorney Bernard Pishko, who oversaw the hiring of the consultants. Crouch said they weren’t available Wednesday.
I’m not debating how dangerous the pipeline could be; the specter of possible catastrophe has been the strategy Colonna’s and residents in affected neighborhoods have flogged in recent weeks. However, reports by the analysts released last week said the pipeline was safe.
“It’s becoming more of a political issue than a safety issue,” Councilman Tommy Smigiel told me. He noted that Colonna’s had already lost a court battle with the gas company.
No, I question how the city decided someone who had consulted with VNG in recent years was truly independent.
It was as if the city didn’t pay attention when Felder sent Norfolk his bio last month. It clearly stated his consulting clients included Virginia Natural Gas, Atlanta Gas and Light, and others.
The Arizona-based Felder, who once ran the Office of Pipeline Safety in the U.S. Department of Transportation, told me Wednesday no one from Norfolk government questioned that connection. It got wider attention after The Pilot’s Ryan Murphy wrote about this week.
That should’ve been one of the first things staffers delved into. Makes you wonder: Did city employees miss anything else?
It doesn’t mean Felder’s critique was faulty; it does raise questions about a possible conflict of interest. To prevent such a cloud, Norfolk shouldn’t have hired him — no matter Felder’s expertise and background.
“There was no effort to conceal anything,” he said, though Felder added he probably should’ve made it clearer about his earlier consulting work for the utility. He said VNG paid him $85,000 for testimony and guidance involving an unrelated dispute with the Virginia State Corporation Commission.
“Organizations often seek out paid consultants who are experts in their field for guidance and an outside opinion,” a VNG spokeswoman said by email, in discussing Felder’s work.
Felder said he hasn’t worked for the company since.
Mayor Kenny Alexander told me the consultant should’ve disclosed the connection sooner. “He could’ve been qualified,” Alexander said, ” … but just to show he was neutral and detached.” He said he told Smith and Pishko they shouldn’t have tapped Felder.
Pressure could eventually build on both officials. Because on the pipeline study, the due diligence wasn’t very dutiful.
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