The Rev. William Barber II, a civil rights leader, and former Vice President Al Gore visited Union Hill in Buckingham County on Tuesday. The pair toured the site for a controversial natural gas compressor station and spoke about Dominion Energy and Gov. Ralph Northam. (Mechelle Hankerson/ Virginia Mercury)

BUCKINGHAM — John Laury missed his hometown when he lived in California.

Union Hill was quiet and clean. Unlike the San Bernadino valley where he lived, smog and heavy air never settled over him, making it hard to breathe.

In 2003, he and his wife, Ruby, went back home to Union Hill, a small community in Buckingham County.

“I wanted to get back to the four seasons,” he said. In Buckingham, Laury can take a deep breath — “just clean air,” he said.

It’s one of the things that residents of the historically black community are concerned will go away as Dominion Energy constructs a large natural gas compressor station as part of its 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Construction on the pipeline is currently paused as the company deals with legal challenges that have voided federal permits.

Residents and pipeline opponents shared stories like Laury’s with former Democratic Vice President Al Gore and the Rev. William Barber II, a civil rights leader, Tuesday.

The pair visited Union Hill to hear about the effects the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the large compressor station and its emissions would have on the historically black community. Barber revived Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People Campaign, which works to address inequality, and added ecological devastation as one of the priorities. Since running unsuccessfully for president, Gore has committed his time to climate change work and runs The Climate Reality Project.

Former Vice President Al Gore speaks to a resident during his visit to Union Grove Baptist Church in Buckingham County. Gore listened to stories and concerns in a meeting closed to the media. (Mechelle Hankerson/ Virginia Mercury)

“It is an outrageous proposal environmentally in terms of environmental injustice; in terms of it being an economic rip-off to the energy ratepayers of Virginia and in terms of global warming, of course,” Gore said in an interview before the event.

Barber took more direct shots at Dominion, asking at one point during a meeting at Union Grove Baptist Church if there were any Dominion employees present.

“In Hebrew, dominion does not mean destruction,” Barber said later in the evening. “In Hebrew, dominion means responsibility. Dominion is God’s instruction for community and taking care of the land and all that is in it.”

Activists and residents spent an hour sharing their stories and information with Gore and his daughter, Karenna Gore. The meeting was closed to the media.

About 1,000 people filled the gymnasium of Buckingham County Middle School the same evening, singing songs to call for justice and to hear stories from residents who live in or near the compressor station and pipeline.

Gore and Barber listened to local experts’ testimony on fracked gas and Union Hill’s history. The two visitors offered few remarks during the evening event, but made clear they supported efforts to stop the pipeline.

While the 600-mile project from West Virginia, through the heart of Virginia and into North Carolina has gotten the local and state permits it needs, court challenges have stripped some crucial federal permits for the pipeline. Construction on the Virginia portion of the pipeline hasn’t started. 

Gore said the best thing Gov. Ralph Northam could do is withdraw his support for the project and ask Attorney General Mark Herring to join lawsuits against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Herring filed a lawsuit against the Mountain Valley Pipeline in December over several hundred alleged environmental violations.

Given Northam’s newfound dedication to racial equity, Gore said, it’s an ideal opportunity for the governor to show how seriously he plans to tackle racial issues.

Northam has been under fire for the last month for a photo on his medical school yearbook page that shows one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo but then later said it wasn’t him.

Gore said he has no opinion on the photo.

“But I did take note of (Northam’s) statement that he was going to dedicate the rest of his term to racial reconciliation,” Gore said. “This community is a wonderful opportunity for him to give meaning to those words and actually show that he’s intent on doing it even if it makes one his largest financial supporters unhappy. That’s where the rubber meets the road.”

Barber had a similar message for Northam, who was not at the event.

Residents from the historically black Union Hill community in Buckingham County were given front-row seats to see the Rev. William Barber II and Al Gore speak. (Mechelle Hankerson/ Virginia Mercury)

“The real racism you must prove you’re against is systemic racism,” Barber said. “Gov. Northam, if you want to be a great governor, if you want to help lead the nation, the first thing you got to do is stop by Union Hill.”

Opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and residents of Union Hill have said the project runs afoul of the state’s supposed commitment to environmental justice, which aims to make sure polluting projects don’t have disproportionate impacts on communities of color and other marginalized groups.

The state Department of Environmental Quality and Dominion say the air permit for the station will be the strictest in the nation. The company also committed $5 million to fund community projects, including emergency response.

Northam has said in the past he preferred to stay out of the way and let regulatory agencies do their job. He broke from that in December when he suddenly removed two members from the State Air Pollution Control Board who seemed ready to vote against a permit for the compressor station.

The terms for both the members had expired months before and he removed a member of the State Water Control Board whose term had expired too.

Gore said that move was “grotesque” and it showed “the fix was in for Dominion.”

In a statement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Northam said “it is clear community concerns remain and that Dominion/ACP’s outreach has thus far been lacking.

“I hope that Dominion/ACP will listen and respond to the concerns of this important historic community and act as a good neighbor.”