BUCKINGHAM — The sermon came from Ezekiel 33:7.
“I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me,” the verse reads.
And, from the pulpit at Union Hill Baptist Church during a Sunday service last month, Pastor Paul Wilson was fully embracing the role, telling his congregation of about two dozen that morning about his growing notoriety for speaking out about one of Virginia’s most contested infrastructure projects, Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“Everybody in Southside Virginia knows who this preacher is,” Wilson said, his cadence swinging between mellow and wrathful. “It was simply because I’m doing what watchmen are supposed to be doing: crying out, just being a voice in the wilderness.”
Wilson’s modest brick church in the verdant Buckingam countryside, near where a nearly 54,000-horsepower compressor station for the pipeline is planned, has become a main hub of heated opposition to the project, proposed four years ago by a group of energy companies lead by Dominion to serve utilities in Virginia and North Carolina and advancing steadily toward full construction in Virginia.
“They want to shut us up,” Wilson told the congregation. “This church is too loud. It’s too vocal. It’s getting to be a problem for Dominion.”
Earlier this year, though, the formidable energy company, the biggest corporate donor to Virginia political campaigns and possessed of other levers of power to get its way, brought in a new “community liaison” to work in Union Hill.
He was a familiar face: former Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Basil Gooden, whose family has deep roots in the community and who is a member of Wilson’s congregation.
“Dominion picked the right one because he’s trustworthy. He articulates Dominion’s position better than Dominion,” Wilson said in an interview. “They’ve always tried to dismiss us as being nonexistent, that we really weren’t there. Dominion miscalculated plain and simple and they realize it. If there’s any entity that can stop the whole process, it would be the church and Dominion has started to realize it.”
Gooden says he was brought on as a paid consultant by the company in the spring, but doesn’t see it as his job to sell people on the project.
“I don’t know if Dominion did everything right from the outset. I don’t know if they’re saying ‘Now we have a problem, let’s bring Basil in and he’ll smooth it over,'” Gooden said. “It’s not my role to smooth over anything Dominion is doing.”
Instead, he said his mission is to ensure “the community’s voices are heard, and not just the loudest voice in the room” and also to put the “community’s economic interests” first.
“I know it’s heartfelt opposition,” Gooden said. “But again, my community as been in decline for many years. And I didn’t see many people taking interest in my community until something came to the forefront that they opposed.”
On one thing, he and Wilson agree: If the community has to live with the compressor station, and the noise and emissions that come with it, they need to be compensated. Wilson said millions have already been offered through back channels.
“It hasn’t been officially offered. It was presented to me through the back door,” he said.
The worst outcome, Gooden said, would be for the “community to have a compressor station there and nothing to show for it.”
‘NO ONE’S SAID A WORD’
The 600-mile, 42-inch diameter natural gas pipeline, planned to run from West Virginia through Virginia and into the eastern third of North Carolina, with a spur to Hampton Roads, will cut through farms, forest, fields, rivers and streams from Highland County to Chesapeake.
Only one Virginia county, however, is being asked to host a compressor station for the project, the grouping of massive gas-powered turbines that push the product through the pipeline.
Dominion plans to place the compressor station on a 65-acre site about a mile away from the Union Hill Baptist church but much closer to some of Wilson’s congregation and other members of the largely black community. Many trace their roots to the freedmen who lived in the area after the Civil War and before it the slaves who labored on the former plantation that comprises part of the compressor station site.
Ella Rose, 74, who retired to the Union Hill area about six years ago and cherishes the turkey, deer and other wildlife she sees from her home, says she’ll be about 150 feet from the station’s property line.
“They’re practically up in my house and no one’s said a word,” she said. “They can at least offer me some compensation.”
As the pipeline has cleared a series of regulatory hurdles— despite an all-out legal onslaught in a variety of court venues to delay or derail the project — attention has shifted increasingly to the environmental justice ramifications of the project.
Federal agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which approved the ACP last year, are required to consider whether effects on human health or the environment “would be disproportionately high and adverse for minority and low-income populations and appreciably exceed impacts on the general population or other comparison group.”
Relying on census tracts around the proposed station, FERC said “no.”
But many would beg to differ, including members of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, which met in Buckingham in May.
So too a group of 14 Democratic lawmakers who sent a letter to Northam late last month urging him to give the same attention to the Buckingham facility as the concerns he expressed about a proposed Dominion compressor station in Maryland that might be visible from Mount Vernon.
“What about the impact of such pipeline compressors on the people whose ancestors suffered as slaves in Virginia before the Civil War emancipated them? Should they have to breathe the toxic methane gas combustions that will result from the operations of a gigantic compressor forced upon their historic African-American freedmen property in Union Hill?” the lawmakers wrote. “We hope you will share your deep concerns about the impacts of a compressor station on this historic property in Virginia as you did about a similar compressor in Maryland.”
Ofirah Yheskel, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the governor’s office has met with “members of the community on multiple occasions.”
“The governor is concerned about environmental justice issues and has asked DEQ to follow all laws and regulations with a sensitivity toward the environmental justice concerns of the community,” she said.
On Thursday, the Department of Environmental Quality published a draft air permit for the compressor station, which contains a range of proposed emissions limits for the pollutants from the facility.
And though Mike Dowd, the DEQ’s air division director, has said the compressor station will be “among the most, if not the most stringently controlled compressor station in the country,” the words “environmental justice” do not appear in the draft permit. That’s because Virginia has no laws requiring the DEQ to take environmental justice issues into account when issuing permits for facilities.
“There are no laws in Virginia,” said Ann Regn, a DEQ spokeswoman. “We rely on the federal analysis of environmental justice.”
‘THAT’S THE WAY THE INDUSTRY DOES’
Wilson and others say it’s no accident Dominion picked their community. For one, the ACP must intersect with the existing Transco pipeline that runs through the area and the compressor station must be near that junction.
“Also, they need to have a major road,” Wilson said. “And because this is a predominantly black community where you have less clout and less voice. … That’s the way the industry does.”
Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby, in an interview last month, said the location was chosen solely based on the proximity to the Transco system. Of two properties the company purchased in the area, the final site on South James River Road was the more suitable, he said.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Environmental Impact Statement says the other location “would require additional pipeline and would increase the construction footprint of ACP.”
The agency’s analysis concluded that “operation of the compressor stations would not cause or contribute to a violation of the federal air quality standards; therefore, we do not believe health would be adversely affected or that the alternative site would be necessary for reasons of air quality or public health.”
Northam’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice is meeting Thursday to finalize their recommendations on the pipeline and the compressor station. If past is prologue, they will include calls to move the compressor station and possibly a recommendation to declare a moratorium on new natural gas infrastructure, which were consensus draft recommendations at the last meeting.
A moratorium on new gas infrastructure, of course, is beyond any governor’s power.
But how forcefully the council pushes the issue could put Northam, who rode the fence on the pipelines during his campaign last year and has faced mounting pressure to do something about them since he took office, in an awkward spot.
But the criticism of how the DEQ has handled the water permitting process for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the separate Mountain Valley Pipeline under construction now, the erosion and sediment control failures that happened immediately with MVP construction and tree-felling violations with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline have not moved him to action yet.
Wilson thinks there’s still time.
“It’s not a done deal and I think that we’re being heard and we’re being heard by some of the right people who have some pull,” Wilson said. “A lot of the politicians are flipping. Gov. Northam is on the fence. … He’s actually waiting until the last minute as to whether he’s going to flip or not.”
It’s getting close to the last minute, though, and lots of people have been waiting, so far in vain, for Northam to take a forceful stand on the projects.