A rendering of the compressor station proposed for rural Buckingham County as part of Dominion Energy's Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Image via Buckingham County Board of Supervisors)

BUCKINGHAM — Scores of people came out Tuesday night against a proposed compressor station in rural Buckingham County for Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The public hearing, held by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, was intended to solicit input on a draft air quality permit to construct and operate a 54,000-horsepower natural gas compressor station in Buckingham but often strayed into a referendum on the entire controversial project.

“Please remember that natural gas is a very clean and safe energy product that can provide a secure energy future for all of Virginia,” Prince Edward County resident John Arsenault told the DEQ panel. Freeda Cathcart, an activist from Roanoke, countered that “there is no market need for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”

One of only three compressor stations along the pipeline’s 600-mile route, the proposed Buckingham station has drawn special criticism because of its location in the historically African-American community of Union Hill. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has fought the project, 83 percent of the 199 residents within a one-mile radius of the station’s 65-acre site are people of color.

“Beyond the overarching concerns with the pipeline itself, we’re really concerned about the environmental justice issues,” said David Neal, an attorney with SELC.

Essential components of any natural gas pipeline, compressor stations increase the pressure needed to transport natural gas over long distances. In doing so, however, they emit pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, carbon and methane, particularly during “blowdowns,” when all gas in the station is vented, and can produce major noise.

The Rev. Paul Wilson, pastor of Union Hill and Union Grove Baptist churches in Buckingham, speaks in opposition to an air permit that would allow a nearly 54,000 horsepower pipeline compressor station to be built near his church. Sept. 11, 2018. (Sarah Vogelsong/ For the Virginia Mercury)

“This thing is opposed in our community because of the disruption and what it means to our community,” said the Rev. Paul Wilson, pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church and an outspoken opponent of the compressor station. “There have been too many things that the industry has done that has not been truly representative and fair to communities such as ours.”

Ruby Laury, a member of the Friends of Buckingham group that has mobilized in response to the pipeline project, put it more bluntly: “You people have looked over us as if we don’t exist.”

The environmental justice concerns raised Tuesday night were not isolated calls.

Last month, the Virginia Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, a board established by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe last year, recommended that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s Clean Water Act certification be rescinded and that all further permits for the project be delayed “to ensure that predominantly poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life-altering disruptions.”

Democratic congressional candidate Leslie Cockburn, who is running to represent the 5th District, which includes all of Buckingham County, called the compressor station “immoral” and said “Dominion has no business putting a massive compressor station in this community.”

Her opponent, GOP candidate Denver Riggleman, has also opposed the pipeline, primarily because of eminent domain concerns.

Many of the more than 80 people who spoke Tuesday, however, disputed the idea that the area surrounding the proposed site would be negatively affected by a compressor station. Dominion has said the compressor station must be sited near the existing Transco pipeline, which the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would connect to in Buckingham.

David Johnson, former chief deputy director of Virginia DEQ and former director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, told the hearing panel that he was “astonished at how stringent the requirements were.”

“This is a minor permit, but it has all the makings of a major permit,” he said. “The DEQ has really gone above and beyond, or, as some would say, really got blood out of the turnip on this one.”

Despite a heavy police presence that included three members of the Buckingham County Sheriff’s Department and about a dozen Virginia State Police troopers, the gathering proved peaceful and largely uneventful.

Besides a few early outbreaks of applause and hissing, the hearing panel’s prohibition of vocal reactions from the audience was heeded by attendees, who signaled their approval of speakers’ testimony by raising both hands in the air and silently waving them back and forth.

Virginia State Police Sgt. C. W. Owen said that the turnout of troopers was at the request of local law enforcement and was intended “to make certain that this is a peaceful night and to make certain everyone has the opportunity to be heard.”

DEQ will continue to accept public comments on the proposed compressed station permit, which ultimately has to be approved by the State Air Pollution Control Board, until Sept. 21.

“The State Air Pollution Control Board has the power to deny this permit and send Dominion back to the drawing board,” Billy Davies, pipelines community outreach coordinator at the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, said in a statement Wednesday. “The overwhelming opposition from last night’s hearing shows the need to take a hard look at the devastating impacts this fracked gas compressor station will have on human health and the environment.”