Democratic legislators call on court to overturn Union Hill permit

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)

Twenty-eight Virginia General Assembly members are urging a federal court to overturn a controversial permit granted by the State Air Pollution Control Board for a compressor station key to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on the grounds that it would irreparably harm Buckingham County’s historic freedman’s community of Union Hill.

“Placing the industrial site in that community runs the real risk of doing what 150 years of slavery, war, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow could not do: tear apart Union Hill and disperse the descendants of its founders,” an amicus brief says.

The brief, filed Friday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, is also signed by the Virginia State Conference NAACP and the Center for Earth Ethics, an institute within the Union Theological Seminary founded by Karenna Gore that seeks to combat ecological destruction.

All of the legislators who signed the brief are Democrats, largely clustered in the regions of Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond. Dels. Sam Rasoul, representing Roanoke, and Chris Hurst, representing several counties in southwestern Virginia, along with Sen. Creigh Deeds, representing Charlottesville and its western environs, are the exceptions.

The brief follows a lawsuit filed in February by the Southern Environmental Law Center, working on behalf of the grassroots Friends of Buckingham and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Those groups have petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to review the air permit granted to the Union Hill compressor station by the air board at the recommendation of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The compressor station has over the past year become a flashpoint in the broader fight over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is being pushed by Dominion Energy as necessary to meet energy demands, though critics, including two Federal Energy Regulatory Commission members, have questioned the need for the project.

Gas being transported over large distances via pipeline must be regularly re-pressurized, a process that occurs in compressor stations. Three such facilities have been planned for the 600-mile-long Atlantic Coast Pipeline, one of which is slated for Union Hill.

Dominion has defended the siting of that station on the grounds that the 65-acre site is close to an existing Transco pipeline and that a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission review found that an alternative site purchased by Dominion in Buckingham County would require additional pipeline.

FERC’s analysis also found that none of the census tracts around the proposed compressor station are “minority environmental justice populations,” and that “with respect to the Union Hill/Woods Corner area, the area is not a historic district and the area of potential effects for the pipeline and compressor station do not constitute a cultural landscape.”

Critics, however, contend that FERC’s methodology for determining the demographic makeup of the area around the proposed compressor station was flawed. One study found that within 1.1 miles of the site, 83% of residents were minorities.

The amicus brief filed Friday rejects FERC’s view of the community, describing Union Hill as “a unique, living, breathing community where the American history of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction resides both in the cemeteries of former slaves and the memory of their descendants.”

“Very few communities like Union Hill still exist, where generations of the descendants of emancipated slaves have continued to live in the same area and on the same land,” the brief contends. “At this time in history, we are at a critical juncture: failure to recognize the historical and cultural value of sites like Union Hill may result in their loss forever, either through their physical destruction or by the loss of the community which can supply the narrative and historical context to understand the importance of the site.”

Another amicus brief filed Friday by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law also urges the court to overturn the permit for the Union Hill compressor station on environmental justice grounds.

Virginia “has not taken action to remedy the errors it made during the [Union Hill] permitting process,” the brief states. “In the interest of environmental justice, and under Virginia law, the Court should vacate and remand the [Union Hill] permit.”

Gov. Ralph Northam drew broad condemnation for removing two members of the air board who had expressed concerns about the Buckingham permit prior to the vote.