The State Air Pollution Control Board approved a contentious permit for a Dominion Energy compressor station, part of the company's Atlantic Coast Pipeline Tuesday, over the objections of anti-pipeline demonstrators. (Mechelle Hankerson/ Virginia Mercury)

The State Air Pollution Control Board unanimously approved a controversial permit that will allow a compressor station in Buckingham County for Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline. 

“I support this project without reservation,” said board member William Ferguson, after explaining he thinks the larger pipeline project would benefit Hampton Roads, where he’s from.

The board had delayed its decision several times to allow for more public comment and consideration of new demographic information given to board members last month. The board vote was a rallying point for pipeline opponents and Union Hill, the largely African-American community in Buckingham that will live with the 54,000 horsepower station and its emissions if the pipeline gets built. 

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)

Pastor Paul Wilson from Union Hill Baptist Church has led opposition to the compressor station and the pipeline and said he expected the board’s decision.

“Of course, I was upset, but I expected the decision to go that way,” he said. “I think you could see the frustration in the board members’ demeanor and their body language spoke volumes, everybody was under so much pressure.”

In November, Gov. Ralph Northam removed two members of the board who expressed concerns about the permit. The new members didn’t vote on the permit.

That sent a “powerful message” to the board, Wilson said.

“Trust me when I tell you we had assumed which way it was going to go,” he said. “We already looked ahead in our crystal ball …  we just have to readjust and keep on putting the pressure on and continue to speak truth to this situation.”

Held at a hotel just outside of Richmond, the meeting became tense and ended with audience members cursing at board members and 15 people being escorted out by state police, according to Corinne Geller, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police.

Police also issued a summons to a Richmond woman for trespassing. She refused to leave when troopers asked her to and laid down in protest, Geller said in an email. Troopers helped her up and when she laid down again, they escorted her from the building and issued her the summons.

Activists have critiqued the process used by the Department of Environmental Quality while considering the permit and taken aim at the larger pipeline project, which will run 600 miles in three states.

Air board member Ignacia Moreno said she had concerns about the compressor station, but the board shouldn’t consider the entire pipeline project.

“The merits of the ACP are not before the board,” she said. “This is not to understate the significance of the matter before the board.”

She said she cast her “yes” vote with the condition that DEQ and the Department of Health perform a health assessment of Union Hill, which was settled by freed slaves.

DEQ staff reminded the board that the proposed compressor station will be the most stringently regulated along the ACP route and in the country. Some of the conditions in the permit were suggested by Dominion and include a continuous emissions monitoring system with quarterly reporting that can’t be changed without DEQ approval.

Because of that, and other data analysis, staff concluded the compressor station wouldn’t have a major impact on air quality for the immediate surrounding community.

DEQ’s analysis showed that the area around the proposed compressor station already has better air quality than most of the state, said Mike Dowd, director of DEQ’s air division.

“The residents in the area will continue to breath air much cleaner than the majority of Virginians,” he told the board.

But that’s not what activists and advocacy groups think, who have said the site will have major negative impacts on Union Hill. 

When Board Chair Richard Langford repeated Dowd’s statement later in the meeting, the crowd bristled.

“OK, you can have a difference of opinion but that’s what been stated and that’s what the data shows,” said Langford, who ordered police to remove audience members several times during the meeting.

Langford and Moreno agreed that Union Hill met the criteria to be treated as an area subject to environmental justice provisions, but analyses showed the compressor station wouldn’t have a “disproportionate impact” on the community.

Langford also discussed the issue of site suitability, saying he felt like the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors approval process- which included dozens of conditions– was sufficient.

An independent study of the area by Lakshmi Fjord, a visiting scholar in anthropology at the University of Virginia, showed that 83 percent of the 199 residents in a 1.1-mile radius around the proposed compressor station site were minorities.

That differed from the state’s calculations, which environmental groups said were too broad to consider a small community like Union Hill.

DEQ’s assertion, which the board endorsed, that meeting minimum air quality standards automatically assures that disproportionate impacts won’t be felt defies logic,” said David Sligh, conservation director of Wild Virginia.

The state also requires that areas of environmental justice are included in the decision-making process when projects are proposed in the area.

Langford said some authorities may have been late in reaching out to Union Hill, but the air board’s public input process was “robust.”

Some advocates disagreed.

“The board has betrayed the principles it laid out in November to carefully consider the full effects and environmental justice impacts of this compressor station and further projects, while ignoring the comments and concerns of thousands of Virginians, by approving this permit,” said Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.

The board opened up a short public comment period late last month that ran through the holidays to collect feedback on demographic information. The comments went directly to board members instead of being collected and then summarized by DEQ staff.

Most of the audience’s reactions had to do with the larger implication of approving the permit.

“This vote serves as further proof that Dominion has bent Virginia’s government to its will,” said Peter Anderson, Virginia program manager of Appalachian Voices. “It is an affront to the citizens of the commonwealth and to the concept of environmental justice, which states that no community should bear a disproportionate burden from adverse environmental impacts. We stand in solidarity with Union Hill. This fight is far from over.”

Dominion suspended all construction on the ACP last month after a federal court vacated one of the project’s permits. It’s not clear if that means construction on the compressor station can immediately start or is also delayed.

Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby did not return a phone call or email seeking comment on the decision.

A statement on the Energy Sure coalition website, a group funded by the pipeline developers, called the permit “the most stringent air permit with the strongest environmental protections of any compressor station in the country,” with air emissions “50 to 80 percent lower than any other compressor station in Virginia.”

“While the approval process has concluded, we know we have to continue building trust in the community,” the companies said. “It will begin with the investments we’re making in a new community center and rescue squad, but it will not end there. We have a profound respect for this community and its history, and we will continue working together to build a better future.”