Commentary

Mountain Valley Pipeline follows familiar playbook: Push pollution into poor and minority communities

July 2, 2021 12:01 am

Workers had begun laying portions of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County near the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – July 26, 2018)

By Elizabeth Jones and Queen Shabazz

As we prepare to give much-needed attention to our national infrastructure and align federal energy policy with the escalating climate crisis, we should remember former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’s observation that infrastructure projects seem always to cut “through the poor area of town, not through the area where the politically powerful people live.”

Justice Douglas published those words fifty years ago, but sadly, they remain no less true today. A case in point: the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline’s request for permission to emit more than 100,000 pounds of pollution each year into the air of Pittsylvania County, Virginia.

Virginia has taken some important first steps toward addressing environmental injustice in the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable communities. But those steps come after decades of decisions by fossil-fuel interests and government actors to place pipelines, power plants, and wasteyards in poor and minority communities.

In the past five years alone, Virginians have seen the pattern play out time and again: Dominion’s Greensville Plant near Emporia (population 63% Black); the C4GT and Chickahominy Power Plants in Charles City County (45% Black, 7% Indigenous); and the Navy’s power plant in Norfolk (76% Black within one mile of the plant).

Even when proposed facilities never materialize—like Dominion’s Buckingham Compressor Station near Dillwyn (43% Black, 31% in poverty), or VNG’s Gidley Compressor Station in Chesapeake (65% people of color within a one-mile radius)—the message to our Black and Brown communities is a painful one: your health, your well-being, and the investments you’ve made in your property are all expendable.

Continuing that pattern, MVP has chosen to build its Lambert Compressor Station in the only majority-minority election district in Pittsylvania County. MVP’s own consultants warn that the station would emit pollution within ten miles of at least ten distinct communities with disproportionately minority or low-income populations.

If approved, the station will expose those communities to increased concentrations of so-called “non-threshold pollutants”—substances like ozone and particulate matter for which there is no safe threshold—as well as neurotoxins like hexane and known carcinogens like formaldehyde.

The DEQ has set July 7 for a public hearing on the permit; however, the hearing is in Richmond —  a three-hour drive from the impacted community — and in-person only, although the agency was holding virtual hearings the past year. This move is directly counter to the agency’s mandate to expand public participation and focus more on environmental justice.

While MVP claims emissions won’t exceed legal limits, even the Trump Administration’s EPA acknowledged the strong scientific evidence that those limits don’t adequately protect health. And that’s especially true for households suffering from respiratory illnesses like asthma or COPD.

Households like ours. This article’s co-author, Elizabeth Jones, is an educator and farm-owner, the daughter of sharecroppers who left their home in 1945 to find the economic opportunity and social justice they’d been denied in the Jim Crow South. That history informs her activities in the local NAACP chapter, where she chairs a committee on environmental justice.

Elizabeth lives with her husband Anderson on a 57-acre farm near Chatham. The property has been in Anderson’s family for almost a century.

If MVP’s station is approved, it will operate near the property line between the project site and the Jones’s farm—both properties zoned for agriculture, not industrial facilities. MVP’s project would be the third compressor station along the rural road that leads to the Jones’s farm; Virginia regulators approved the second just last year.

Anderson suffers from asthma, and his mother died of the disease. Living next to MVP’s station places him in the cohort most likely to suffer the acute and long-term impacts of air pollution.

The Lambert station is just one part of MVP’s “Southgate” project—an extension of the 300-mile pipeline designed to carry gas from fracking wells in West Virginia. The pipeline will affect homes, communities, and ecosystems all along that route.

For landowners in the wealthier and whiter areas of the 300-mile stretch, the law requires that MVP pay just compensation for easements through their property. But the Joneses won’t be compensated for damage to the value of their farm or increased health risks.

Meanwhile, Equitrans Midstream, the developer of the MVP and Southgate projects, made more than $1.5 billion in revenue in 2020.

Instead of rewarding projects designed to prop up fossil-fuels, we should invest in clean energy projects that will benefit all communities for generations to come—white, black, brown and indigenous, affluent and poor. After all, the fossil industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are altering a global climate that we all share.

Justice Douglas warned us also that the “liberties of none are safe unless the liberties of all are protected.” By the same token, the environment is safe for none of us until we make it safe for all of us.

Elizabeth Jones is chair of the Pittsylvania County NAACP’s Environmental Justice Committee. Queen Shabazz is coordinator of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative. 

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