Protesters and residents of Union Hill in Buckingham County are frustrated by the government’s approval of Dominion Energy plans to establish a second compressor station in the area, a decision they consider a civil injustice and environmental racism.
Much of the land in Union Hill, including the second Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor site, has been passed down from generation to generation, originally acquired by the Freedmen’s Bureau.
“There are a lot slave burials — some of them are unmarked, but more and more are being identified,” said Chad Oba, co-chairman of Friends of Buckingham and resident of Union Hill. “So there’s a lot of historical significance here and they’re supposed to look at that and they didn’t.”
Oba added that he is worried about the environmental impact the compressor would have on the community — noting the residents do not trust their board of supervisors.
“That was the one place where locality could have stopped this dead,” Oba said. “It was clear that people made a lot of good reasons why we shouldn’t have it here and it was really a large majority of people and they passed it anyways.”
ACP Media Relations Manager Aaron Ruby said the surveys of the site did not find “evidence of any graves, burial grounds or other cultural resources.”
“We share their concern for these sites, and we’ve taken meaningful steps to protect them,” Ruby said.
Mary Finley-Brook, professor at University of Richmond and member of the Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (ACEJ), said the pipeline issue is partly due to environmental racism — and the subsequent burden on low-income people and communities of color, she said.
Finley-Brook also said the statistics ACP used in its federal permit application are not necessarily applicable to Union Hill community. According to the 12-page letter sent to Governor Ralph Northam from the ACEJ, of the 99 households within two miles of the proposed compressor station, 85 percent of residents are African-American.
Oba also said Dominion Energy submitted its application for the construction permit to the DEQ — which was rejected multiple times. The DEQ ultimately worked with Dominion Energy to have the permit passed.
“The first proposal never would have passed,” Finley-Brook said. “And DEQ, instead of rejecting it, just continued to feed Dominion Energy the information they would need and how much they would need to do to squeeze by on different levels.”
With the ACEJ being the only government agency in Union Hill speaking in favor of the residents’ interests, Oba said there is a high degree of helplessness the community feels against the government and private corporations.
In the ACEJ letter to Northam, the advisory council listed multiple civil rights and environmental violations associated with the ACP — ultimately recommending the governor suspend the air permit.
“We’re also using some of the strongest emission controls ever used by the industry,” Ruby, ACP’s media relations manager, said. “Most air emissions at the station will be 50 to 80 percent lower than emissions at other compressor stations in Virginia.”
According to the advisory council, the proposed compressor station would release 51.6 tons of carbon monoxide and 8.30 tons of sulphur dioxide, which could contribute to hypoxic-related illnesses and acid rain, respectively.
“Natural gas produces half the carbon emissions of coal and 80 to 90 percent less sulfur and nitrogen,” Ruby said. “By replacing coal with cleaner natural gas, we’ve lowered our carbon footprint by more than 40 percent since 2005.”
In Finley-Brook’s research, she and her team found that “health complaints of populations living near gas infrastructure include respiratory problems, eye and skin irritations and elevated cancer rates.” They also noted that, “permits seldom consider cumulative exposures from other proximate sources of pollution.”
In 2015, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League filed a 20-page civil lawsuit against county officials after granting a special use permit, saying the Buckingham County Administrator Rebecca Carter signed and submitted the Local Governing Body Certification Form to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality — one year before the Planning Commission held a public hearing on the matter.
In Northam’s one-page letter to the ACEJ rejecting their recommendations, he stated the Virginia DEQ has held a number of public information sessions in the Union Hill community. However, Finley-Brook said there was no meeting ever held at Union Hill and that the only sessions held were at the Buckingham Courthouse and Buckingham County Middle School.
“I was at every one of those meetings. I know when they were and where they were,” Finley-Brook said. “The only meeting that happened in Union Hill was not a meeting, it was a community tour.”
Finley-Brook said the “tour” of Union Hill only included two community residents and Virginia DEQ representatives, including Director of Air Division Michael Dowd, Air Toxics Coordinator Patrick Corbett and Manager in the Office of Air Permitting Tamera Thompson. The meeting lasted approximately 20 minutes.
It has been more than four years since Dominion Energy submitted its first proposal, with the Virginia DEQ helping them along the entire process. Union Hill residents who are against the ACP have one month to prepare a counterproposal.
“We have to go out and beg for help, get pro bono help, or raise funds and pay people,” Oba said. “We get 30 days.”