State board will decide permit for Buckingham compressor station, focus of Virginia’s biggest environmental justice debate

By: - November 8, 2018 6:05 am

Ella Rose, 74, is opposed to the massive compressor station Dominion Energy wants to build next to her property in Buckingham County as part of its contentious Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Cat McCue/ Appalachian Voices)

Ella Rose doesn’t expect to see much of a familiar “friend” if and when the compressor station comes to her corner of Buckingham County.

“I sit here in my living room, and I watch the deer and the turkeys and the wildlife walk through my backyard almost every day,” said Rose, 74, a native of neighboring Nelson who has lived in Buckingham County since 2012.

Rose’s home sits about 150 feet from property owned by Dominion Energy, on which the company plans to build a massive gas-powered compressor station as part of its 600-mile, tri-state Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“I have a bear friend somewhere back there, too,” she laughs, “but he doesn’t come out too often. Once they start building that compressor, they’re going to run all the animals away from here. And that’s just the start of it.”

The State Air Pollution Control Board begins two days of meetings today on a proposed air permit for the compressor station, the last remaining Virginia approval for the energy giant’s natural gas pipeline and the last chance for residents of the majority-black, historic community of Union Hill and their allies to voice objections to regulators in a position to do something about it.

Union Hill, where Rose lives, a community founded by freedmen and the formerly enslaved after the Civil War, has emerged as the epicenter of an environmental justice battle between the energy company, the community, anti-pipeline groups, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice and the commonwealth’s branch of the oldest civil rights organization in the country. 

In 2016, Preservation Virginia named Union Hill one of the state’s most endangered historic places

“Post-Emancipation African-American settlements and burial sites, like those at Union Hill in Buckingham County, reveal the successes and struggles of generations of African Americans in Virginia,” the organization said in a statement.

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)

The ACP was one of several utility proposals statewide which “threaten to undermine the integrity of key natural and historic resources,” the group said.

In 2017, Preservation Virginia proposed Buckingham County for inclusion on Virginia’s National Register of Historic Places.

Most recently, the Buckingham County History Project, run by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Public History, notes that Union Hill “has been historically, and remains today, populated primarily by African-American families,” such as Rose and her brother William Rose, who lives with his wife across the road from his sister’s home.

Many Union Hill residents are descendants of formerly enslaved people who now “own land and reside in the proposed district, including [a] cattle farm and orchard on land owned by a descendant of slaves,” an outline of the project states. 

“We have a rich, rich history here,” says Rose. “And it is being completely disregarded.”

‘Would they want it in theirs?’ 

The 54,000-horsepower Buckingham compressor station is one of three along the pipeline route but the only one in Virginia.  Large turbines will compress the natural gas, keeping it flowing at a steady clip through the pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina.

If it is built, it will be the largest such facility in Virginia, according to the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP.

The draft air permit  from the Department of Environmental Quality, which the air board will consider during what promise to be two days of lengthy and contentious meetings today and Friday, sets limits for volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. 

Technical opposition to the permit, which DEQ has argued will make the facility “among the most, if not the most stringently controlled compressor station in the country,” centers on its greenhouse gas releases, size, lack of best available technology to control emissions, monitoring requirements, limits sets for certain pollutants and flaws in the air modeling used, among other objections.

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).

Particulate matter can cause respiratory problems, decreased lung function, heart attacks and premature death in people with lung or heart disease, warns the Environmental Protection Agency.

Particulate matter is one of at least eight pollutants that the compressor station will produce and release; all of them pose serious health risks, and, according to a diverse, vocal contingent of Buckingham residents, community groups and the Virginia State Conference of the  NAACP, will disproportionately impact Union Hill.

“The company’s reported ‘annual potential to emit,’ in terms of tons of pollutants per year, does not reflect the variability of emissions and thus, the potential for local residents to be exposed to elevated concentrations of dangerous pollutants,” the Southern Environmental Law Center wrote in its comments on the permit, adding that emissions from compressor stations can “highly variable.”

“Operating compressor stations have been observed to have such highly variable emissions, including large spikes of harmful VOC emissions,” the SELC wrote. “One compressor station in Pennsylvania emitted dangerous amounts of ethylbenzene, butane and benzene on some days and hardly detectable amounts on other days, resulting in averages that did not appropriately indicate the compressor station’s threats to human health.”

The whole proposal is tantamount to environmental racism, says Rose. 

“They are putting this [compressor station] in this neighborhood because we are black,” says Rose, a claim she says she has voiced at every public meeting about the station without a response from Dominion.

“They are putting it right in the middle of our community. Would they want it in theirs, with the pollution and noise and everything it’s going to bring? What makes it all right to put in ours?”

Spokesmen for Dominion Energy did not respond to several requests for interviews. In past statements and meetings, the company has said the compressor station’s location is a matter of necessity — it must be sited near the existing Transco pipeline, which the ACP will connect to —  and has no relation to the demographics of the community.

Dominion did purchase a second site in Buckingham to use for the station, though 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.”

‘We know it’s going to cause problems’

Environmental justice is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

It’s not a new concept: it emerged in the 1980s, spurred by the first national study which revealed that race was a major factor in where toxic waste could be found in residential communities nationwide.

The report found that three out of the five biggest commercial hazardous waste landfills were located in predominantly black or Latino communities.

The 1987 study highlighted the work of environmental justice activism, led by people of color, for decades in the second half of the 20th century: farm workers rights protests in California championed by Latino workers in the 1960s; Harlem, N.Y., residents who in the late 1960s fiercely opposed a sewage treatment plant destined for their neighborhood; Warren County, N.C., residents — mainly low-income African Americans — waged war against the state government to prevent soil laced with toxic PCBs from entering a landfill in their community.

The Warren County campaign, though ultimately unsuccessful, launched a nationwide environmental justice movement.

Today, environmental racism and environmental justice continue to be major challenges for communities of color, evidenced by the lead-laden water crisis in Flint, Mich., and a civil rights case in Uniontown, Ala., brought by black residents who say they’ve suffered frequent nosebleeds, headaches and even mental health problems spawned by 4 million tons of toxic coal ash in a nearby landfill for the past 10 years. 

The Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice identified several environmental justice concerns stemming from the Buckingham compressor station earlier this year.

“The Union Hill Compressor Station in Buckingham County may have a disproportionate impact on this predominantly African-American community and could be perceived as exhibiting racism in siting, zoning and permitting decisions and public health risk,” the group wrote in an August 2018 review of Virginia’s gas infrastructure.

Further, the council recommended Gov. Ralph Northam convene an emergency task force to examine “evidence of disproportionate impacts for people of color and for low-income populations due to gas infrastructure expansion.”

Opponents of a compressor station proposed for Buckingham County as part of Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline pose outside of Union Hill Baptist Church, which has organized opposition to the project. (Friends of Buckingham)

The administration thanked the advisory council for its work but has largely ignored its recommendations.

The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP denounced the ACP in recent months, and now also opposes the Buckingham compressor station. Rev. Kevin Chandler, the group’s president, says the organization filed a lawsuit to halt the ACP in early October, based on findings from its environmental justice committee. 

“Environmentally, we know it’s going to cause problems,” said Chandler, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in South Boston. “We’re concerned about the impact on the drinking water, and the impact the vibrations from the [compressor] station will have on cattle and livestock. We’re concerned about the noise level for people who will have to live very near this facility, and how their general quality of life will be affected.”

Safety is also a major concern, Chandler said. 

“The local firefighters and first responders in that area of Buckingham are simply not prepared for a disaster, should one occur at the compressor station,” he said. 

Though Dominion promises “onsite, multi-layered safety controls, an intensive inspection program and rigorous monitoring on a 24/7 basis” at the facility, the state NAACP wants additional safety resources made available to local emergency workers.

“They need proper training, which Dominion should provide,” Chandler said.  

Since the compressor station will become a permanent fixture in Union Hill, residents should be fairly compensated, Chandler said.

“There are some financial needs in that community, and if the project continues to move forward, the people who live there should not be worse off because of it,” he said. 

Chandler says Dominion has “yet to answer many of our concerns, in terms of environmental safety and air quality.” 

However, on Thursday evening, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Dominion has offered $5.1 million to pay for a range of improvements in the Union Hill area, including additional emergency infrastructure and a new community center.

“They’re using it as a divide-and-conquer technique,” the Rev. Paul Wilson, pastor of the Union Hill and Union Grove Baptist churches, a locus of opposition to the project, told the paper.

Others saw it as way to ensure that the community gets something out of the deal if it is forced to live with the compressor station.

Pipeline ‘sensationalism?’

The mission of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus is to “improve the economic, educational, political and social conditions of African Americans and other underrepresented groups” in Virginia.

The Hampton-based group is comprised of black legislators and chaired by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond.

When reached by phone, Bagby says his office and the caucus have been “readily available and willing” to address concerns about the Buckingham compressor station.

While he appreciates the perspectives of people like Wilson, Bagby says “challenges associated with the pipeline in Buckingham have been exploited” by some individuals, whom he would not name directly.

“It is my hope that we continue to work to make sure everyone is informed of who is making the decisions, as opposed to sensationalism. Buckingham citizens deserve to get factual information,” Bagby said.

Bagby says he has set up a meeting with Basil Gooden, a Dominion Energy-hired community liaison and former Virginia secretary of agriculture with deep ties to Union Hill, to get an update on Dominion’s response to residents’ concerns. A date has not been set for that meeting, Bagby says. 

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, vice chair of the caucus, who also serves on the state Senate’s Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources committee, could not be reached for a phone interview due to scheduling conflicts, her office said. Sen. McClellan did not reply to emailed questions about the Buckingham compressor station.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved tree felling in Buckingham at the probable site of the compressor station last month.

As the trees fall, and the state board takes up the permit to move the compressor project forward, Buckingham residents and their supporters are airing their criticism of the ACP compressor station at a news conference this morning in Richmond.

Black Buckingham residents have been speaking out for the duration of the ACP process, Chandler said, “but they are just now having their voices heard. Whether it’s built or not, it is critically important for those voices to be heard.”

Rose wants to communicate a simple message to Dominion: 

“We have the right to breathe clean air, and to have good well water,” she said. “We have rights, like everybody else. This is an injustice to our existence.”

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Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is Commentary and Deputy Editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.