Activists stood outside the governor's mansion last month and read public comments opposing the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines into a megaphone. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Aug. 14, 2018)

Two weeks ago, Gov. Ralph Northam’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice sent him the final version of a letter long in the works — the latest in a lengthy series of attempts to push Northam’s administration somewhere it steadfastly refuses to go.

The council had telegraphed its recommendations months ago on the ultra contentious Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines during a meeting in May in Buckingham County, where Dominion Energy, the lead partner in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, wants to site a giant compressor station for the project.

If Dominion gets its way, it will be building the nearly 54,000-horsepower compressor station — which comes with a host of nasty emissions, periodic mass releases of gas called “blowdowns” and the risk of an explosion — on a piece of land that was part of a former slave plantation and in a largely black community, Union Hill, where many trace their lineage to the freedmen who toiled there.

The project would be one of three compressor stations for the 600-mile pipeline but the only one in Virginia.

It’s worth noting that the influential energy giant is looking for another site for a Maryland compressor station after people (including Northam) expressed concern that it might mar the view from Mount Vernon across the Potomac. Why doesn’t Buckingham, where Dominion actually owns another piece of land that it purchased for the compressor station but opted not to use, merit the same concern?

Late last month, the advisory council became the first body connected to Virginia government to state what many Union Hill residents and pipeline opponents consider obvious:

“Union Hill Compressor Station in Buckingham County may have a disproportionate impact on this predominately African-American community and could be perceived as exhibiting racism in siting, zoning and permitting decisions and public health risk,” the group wrote.

A sign at the edge of property along South James River Road in Buckingham County that Dominion Energy has purchased for a proposed compressor station. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury).

The council recommended revoking water quality permits for both pipeline projects; suspending the air permit decision for the compressor station (the draft permit, which must be approved by the State Air Pollution Control Board, is scheduled for a public hearing tonight in Buckingham) and creating an emergency task force “to assess evidence of disproportionate impacts for people of color and for low-income populations due to gas infrastructure expansion.”

The council also wants a review of permitting policy and procedures “to ensure that predominately poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life-altering disruptions.”

As of Monday, the council had yet to receive a formal response from the governor.

“Gov. Northam appreciates the council’s advice and looks forward to the council addressing a broad range of environmental justice issues throughout his administration,” his spokeswoman, Ofirah Yheskel, said late last week.

They probably shouldn’t hold their breath.

In a letter responding to more than a dozen lawmakers who urged the governor to get tougher on the projects, Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler said the state’s role on the compressor station “is to evaluate the potential impacts of the facility on air quality, and we have directed (the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality) to ensure that any permit issued for this facility meets the highest possible air quality standards.”

Why hasn’t Northam budged since his campaign on the pipelines, even amid evidence that they can’t be built without harming Virginia waters, will raise electric bills for Dominion customers, and aren’t needed, except to keep delivering returns for energy company shareholders?

“I don’t think he’s truly the environmentalist he claims to be,” said Paul Wilson, pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church, which has emerged as the locus of the fight against the compressor station. “I think he could be an outstanding governor if he would just do the right thing.”

Few would want the governor directly telling a state board what to do, but Northam missed his chance to put his stamp on the most controversial environmental issues in the state when he reappointed David Paylor, seen as an eager industry appeaser, to his job as head of the Department of Environmental Quality and passed on the chance to make two appointments to the State Water Control Board before it met to consider revoking water certifications for the projects and instituting additional review.

The realpolitik answer may be simply that Northam doesn’t want to and doesn’t have to.

“He was able to obtain the Democratic nomination with the position he now has,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Virginia political analyst. “In some ways he has maintained that position that’s annoyed the environmentalists from the get go but it didn’t cost him politically. … The environmentalists are struggling to find where the political levers are on a Democrat right now.”

Especially in Virginia, where governors are barred from serving consecutive terms, the pipelines don’t seem to be a major liability for Northam, flush from his Medicaid expansion victory.

“The opposition crosses party lines, it’s very clear,” Holsworth said. “But they have yet to be able to convert it into political capital.”

But where arguments about water quality, climate change, consumer protection and others failed, could the racial aspect the pipeline debate has taken as the Buckingham compressor station comes to the fore alter the calculus?

“Where is the Legislative Black Caucus?” Holsworth said. “The pressure that could come to Northam on this could certainly come from the Legislative Black Caucus. He would certainly have to pay attention to that.”

A sign on State Route 663 near Union Hill Baptist Church in Buckingham , one of several in the area opposed to Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury).

Where indeed?

Asked about Union Hill and the pipelines during the special redistricting session last month, Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the chairman of the caucus, didn’t have much of anything to say.

“I don’t at this time, I just don’t have enough information,” said Bagby, who last session co-sponsored Dominion Energy’s massive rewrite of utility regulation that will make it harder for regulators to issue refunds to customers. Dominion is a major campaign contributor to Bagby and the charitable foundation where he works is also a big recipient of donations from Dominion and its CEO, Tom Farrell.

At an economic development announcement in Richmond, another member of the caucus, Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, said environmental justice issues, “especially those dealing with air quality, are of particular importance to us.”

“And I’m sure my colleagues in the Black Caucus share those concerns,” he said.

Several other members of the caucus did not respond to requests for interviews on the compressor station. A staffer for Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, the vice chair of the caucus, said last week that she was unavailable because of a medical procedure and did not respond to a follow-up request Monday. A message left at a number listed in Hampton for the caucus office was not returned.

A spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who opposed the pipelines during his campaign, said he is meeting with pipeline opponents next week.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, a member of the caucus, said “the compressor station and the pipelines have not largely been a topic of recent conversations I’ve had” with fellow members. Rasoul said he couldn’t speak for the caucus but, as an outspoken opponent of the pipelines, was happy to speak for himself.

“It’s clear what is happening in Virginia is an injustice in so many ways. We’re seeing this play out in other states where communities of color and communities with high amounts of poor people are just being railroaded. It all comes down to big money in politics and our government,” he said.

The biggest donor to the Legislative Black Caucus?

You guessed it: Dominion Energy.

Letter to Gov. Ralph Northam from the Advisory Council on Environmental Justice

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.