A textbook example of environmental racism has unfolded in Union Hill, Virginia. When Dominion Energy was looking for a site for its Buckingham compressor station the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board (APCB) chose the predominately African American community of Union Hill—a community of descendants of freed African slaves.
Artist’s rendering of the Buckingham compressor station. Photo from the Dominion Energy website.
Increased Air Pollution
The Buckingham compressor station is part of the planned, now beleaguered Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 605-mile, 42-inch, high-pressure, fracked-gas pipeline. The compressor station is needed to compress the gas for efficient movement through the line. The 54,000-horsepower, gas-fired station will run every hour—every single day. According to FERC’s own environmental impact statement, this compressor station will significantly increase air pollution. Annual nitrogen oxide pollution will increase by 120 percent. Daily fine particle emissions will increase by 69 percent. The station will also emit known carcinogens into the community. The APCB and Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) argues that this increase is still below the states’ air quality standards.
The planned pipeline will be the largest construction project in Virginia since the construction of the interstate highway system. It will cross thousands of streams, subjecting them to sedimentation. It will have to blast through 71 miles of limestone geology called karst that is a known geohazard.
Illegal Air Permit Goes to Court
On January 9, 2019, the DEQ issued the Air Permit to Dominion to construct their compressor station in Union Hill. On February 8, 2019, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of Friends of Buckingham against the DEQ and the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board for failure to follow the law. Their brief was filed on May 31, 2019. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia heard the case on October 29, 2019. Listen to the entire hearing posted on the court’s website.
In this Richmond Times-Dispatch article, the “state concedes Union Hill’s racial status.”
John Laury, Descendant of Freed Slaves
John Laury and his wife, Ruby, live in Union Hill within a mile of the proposed compressor station. He is one of the descendants of freed African slaves who lives in Union Hill. I sat down with him and Ruby at their kitchen table to discuss the situation.
“When did you know about environmental racism?” I asked.
He paused, then answered in a slow, deliberate way.
“I’ve always wondered why the minority and low-income communities seemed to have a pattern of a higher percentage of people with sickness like asthma, cancer, lung disease, and heart disease. I did not know the word for it, but I knew it was there. People of color and the poor lived near the coal ash dumps, the smokestacks, chemicals, and now this compressor station.”
John and Ruby are among the growing number of people who have joined to fight the pipeline, environmental racism, and corporate bullying by utility giant Dominion Energy.
“Reckless, Racist, Ripoff”
A rally was held in February only weeks after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal erupted. Over 700 people packed the Buckingham Middle School to hear pipeline fighters and environmental justice leaders.
Former Vice President Al Gore called the proposed 605-mile pipeline and compressor station a “reckless, racist, ripoff.” The Reverend William Barber II called it a “scandalous, systemic, sin.” Both called on the governor to stop the environmental racism and the pipeline. No word, as usual, came from the governor or anyone from his administration.
FERC, DEQ, and the Virginia APCB violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) guidelines when they approved Dominion’s site and permit for the Buckingham compressor station. NEPA and EPA require the use of the best and most recent data to determine minority demographics and health issues in the decision-making process. All of them, FERC, DEQ, and the APCB used outdated and misleading data. They used 2010 census data for the whole county of Buckingham. It showed that the site did not impose a disproportionate health risk on minorities. In fact, DEQ argued that Union Hill is not a minority community.
Door-to-Door Demographics by UVA Anthropologist
Dr. Lakshmi Fjord, a scholar at the University of Virginia’s Department of Anthropology conducted a survey that was published in September 2018, using actual household data from the people that live within a mile of the proposed site. She concluded that 83 percent of the residents were minorities, far higher than the county average of 34.7 percent—the number used by Dominion, FERC, and the DEQ. The study also concluded that 59 percent of those residents have preexisting health issues. Although the study was submitted to FERC, DEQ, and the APCB they chose not to use it and concluded that Union Hill was not a minority community.
Clearly, FERC, DEQ, and the APCB violated federal law, federal guidelines, and the civil rights of the people of Union Hill.
I applaud you for tackling this touchy issue. It does seem to me that this is another appalling example of Dominion’s arrogance, FERC’s ineffectiveness, and Governor Northam’s remarkable silence..
Makes one think that not much has actually changed since the “Jim Crow” days.
Thanks for writing it!
George, thanks so much for your comments. I gnash my teeth at the silence of Northam and his administration.
Thank you, Bobby for this tremendously important local topic, richly loaded with detailed info, as usual. I’m so glad you were able to speak directly with John and Ruby Laury.
It was an awesome experience. Thanks for stopping in with your comment, Kate.
I think there’s a pernicious misconception that “tree huggers” only care about trees. This story is so important. I’m forwarding to NAACP friends.
I hope your NAACP friends read the post and don’t let Dominion Energy sponsor their Environmental Justice rally. Dominion Energy is the leader of ER. Thanks for posting your comment and forwarding the post to your friends.
Thanks for doing this article, Bobby. The compressor station would be a reckless, racist ripoff. People of color have borne the brunt of dirty industrial projects for decades. It’s time for communities to get fair treatment. Good for the folks in Buckingham for standing up for their people, their place and their honorable heritage!
Given the climate crisis, fossil fuel companies should no longer be expanding. First, they should halt any expansion — no more pipelines, no more new drilling and no more exploration for coal, oil and gas. Then, dirty energy companies should wind down their business over a period of time so that customers can switch to clean energy with minimal impact on the economy. Finally, oil, coal and gas companies should return their assets to their shareholders and then close up shop.
In the end, the last one to leave should turn off the lights on every dirty energy company and the whole industry. Let’s thank them for their service and remember them for not only the damage they wrought but also the good things they brought. And then let’s move on to a better way to power our economy.
Spot on, Solar Patriot! Thanks for your comments! Dominion could be the hero in all this by putting their $7 billion into renewables instead of this ignominious failure of a pipeline. It will not be built because the enormous groundswell of resistance. Thanks for your leadership in renewable energy and in governance on the city council.
Excellent summary; sad case. We can only hope Dominion abandons this pipeline fiasco.
Right on, Lori!
Thanks Bobby! Did not know about this bit of the pipeline nightmare but not surprised, just standard business practice. Find cheapest land with residents with weakest voice and force your way in. Don’t get Northam’s compliance (is he only democrat that supports pipeline?) with this but I do get Dominion’s; greed. A big step can be taken next week at ballot box; vote out the folks that think everything is good and have no plans to offer other than more of the same. No is not a plan. Silence is not a plan. Vote the scoundrels out. Thanks for getting the word out and the pressure on. We continue to battle greed and insanity here in Louisa.
Randy, thank you so much for stopping in with your comments. You are so right. The ballot box is so important.
Thanks for your excellent explanation of how we cannot rely on the Northam Administration to protect its citizens. I think it’s a sad reality that in this country, citizens have to mobilize to fight against corporate greed, racism, and power because their representatives are beholden to the corporations. Citizens not only have to fight the corporations, they have to fight their representatives. Maybe I should be thankful that we have the right to dissent in that way, but right now it just makes me angry.
Me too, Joe. Thanks for stopping in and for fighting.
“Lakshmi Fjord began to cry after an attorney for the State Air Pollution Control Board conceded in federal court Tuesday that Union Hill, a community established by freed slaves in Buckingham County after the Civil War, is indeed overwhelmingly populated by African Americans,” Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Thank you again, Bobby for your very positive environmental leadership and now for addressing in such a convincing way the great harm that the pipeline project unfairly imposes on this community of people. We as a society owe them so much better. Don’t ever give up.
George, good to hear from you and thanks for posting your comments. You are spot on.
One could only hope that the board of supervisors and the citizens of Augusta county are reading this story. The time is here to change to clean renewable energy. Kill the Fescue, plant native species of grasses and pollinators and Boom! you have Bees and maybe Quail, It’s a win, win situation that could be a reality with managed solar farms.
David, I was so disappointed that at least some of the utility-scale solar did not get approved. We so need to utility scale renewables. Thanks for your comments.
Thanks to friends I was there for that great meeting in Buckingham with Al Gore and Rev. Barber. The place was packed, the majority were white, but all focused on the incredible unfairness on so many levels of this effort to push natural gas by Dominion. Yeah, we all thought that FERC and a democratic Governor would defend us from this sorry situation. One thing you might have missed, had you not been there, was the sound of that Compressor system when, once each hour, it kicks in.
The blast is incredible, and had it lasted longer, probably would have emptied the place. I can’t imagine the impact of steeling yourself each hour, waiting for it, putting on headphones? earplugs? And what do you do about the livestock, the wild animals, the birds? And all that is inferior to the ongoing and rising air pollution invisibly blanketing the place every minute of every day. This federal administration has even retracted the additional regulation of emissions from compressor systems and other gas line connections imposed by the Obama administration, their leakiness proved long ago. And Gov. Northam has been forthcoming on some environmental and health issues, but not once, so far, on issues surrounding these pipelines. It appears that could only be that either he or important contributors are heavily invested in it.
Thanks for making this situation more widely known, Bobby. Bravo. Anne
Anne, thanks so much for your comments! Spot on.