Ralph Northam Says He’s Committed to Racial Equity. So Why is He Ignoring Union Hill?

Ralph Northam Says He’s Committed to Racial Equity. So Why is He Ignoring Union Hill?

Ralph Northam Says He’s Committed to Racial Equity. So Why is He Ignoring Union Hill?

Residents of a historic African-American community in Virginia are asking the governor to keep a major natural-gas project out of their town. 


Union Hill, VA

Standing in the churchyard at Union Hill Missionary Baptist, where gravestones mark generations of his mother’s Harper surname, Richard Walker gestured toward a house about a mile to the southwest, immediately adjacent to the 68-acre site where the nation’s biggest electric utility and its partners plan to install a gas compressor with the horsepower of an aircraft-carrier propeller to move up to 1.5 billion cubic feet of fracked fuel a day through this tiny Reconstruction settlement. 

“She’s 150 feet from the compressor-station site,” Walker said, referring to the house’s owner, Ella Rose. Walker was speaking with Virginia statehouse delegates Marcia Price and Lashrecse Aird, members of the Legislative Black Caucus who said they came as individuals to learn about the impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Dominion Energy’s major natural-gas project stretching from West Virginia to North Carolina.

Environmental- and racial-justice advocates have been fighting for more than four years to keep the compressor station and pipeline out of Union Hill, a small community located in Buckingham County, south of Charlottesville. With state and federal permits already granted, all that currently impede the project are the courts, which have vacated several permits and continue to hear appeals. But after a scandal erupted over a photo on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical-school-yearbook page, which showed a man in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, Northam pledged to devote the remainder of his term to racial equity. Now activists in Union Hill are calling on him to live up to that promise by reevaluating the permits granted to the project.

“Governor Northam, if you want to right a wrong, you can start with Union Hill,” Walker said earlier in the day, introducing the Black Caucus members at Union Grove Missionary Baptist, another tiny, historic church, where 30 people had gathered inside on the first Sunday afternoon in April. “He’s never even come here.”

During a February visit, civil-rights leader Rev. Dr. William Barber and former vice president Al Gore called on Northam to oppose the pipeline to show his commitment to racial justice. “Any governor or legislator, Democrat or Republican…that has chosen Dominion over this community is scandalous,” said Barber. “What he should do more than resign is he should get the resolve to be serious and take on this project. He could lead the nation. He could lead the South.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry natural gas fracked from the Marcellus Shale basin in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, moving it 600 miles through Virginia and North Carolina. With a cost approaching $8 billion, the ACP ranks at No. 20 on President Trump’s list of top national-security infrastructure projects, part of his administration’s push for “energy dominance.” With domestic demand far below the ACP’s proposed capacity, observers on all sides of the controversy speculate the energy company’s ultimate aim is to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) across the Atlantic.

“They’re stating their case for domestic use,” said Rev. Paul Wilson, a key Union Hill organizer who drove the van leading Aird and Price’s tour. “It’s about the money. Everything is pointing toward going to the coast, where they can off-load it onto ships.” Dominion, for its part, downplays the prospect of exports. “It’s theoretically possible that some gas molecules that leave West Virginia and pass through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could follow a torturous path and make it to [export facilities]…. Right now, what I can talk about is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline as it exists,” said Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien.

Communities of color will bear the weight of this project all along the route, as noise, leaks, emissions, and potential explosions all threaten air, water, soil, quality of life, and climate health. The ACP would traverse eight different counties in North Carolina, where 30,000 Native Americans live within a mile of the route. All but one of those counties have a higher percentage of Black residents than the statewide average. Every year across the US, 600-700 gas-pipeline incidents kill about 15 people, injure dozens, and cost $500 million to remedy, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The blast zone for a 40-inch pipeline is about 1,000 feet, though the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires only a 50-foot right-of-way. Many homes along the ACP path fall within that 1,000-foot incineration zone. Ella Rose’s house, for example, lies about a quarter mile from the permanent compressor station, but sits much closer to where the pipeline would run behind her home. An incident is far more likely to kill or injure a member of the public than a gas-industry worker, PHMSA statistics say.

“We know how to operate pipelines safely,” insisted Dominion’s chief counsel, Carlos Brown, who has moved outside his typical role as an attorney to engage with the neighbors because of environmental-justice concerns. “Compressor stations are some of the safest places on pipelines.”

The ACP terminus would bring a metering and regulating station and 350-foot radio tower to Robeson County, North Carolina, already home to another pipeline and compressor station, with plans for a new liquid-natural-gas storage facility. Located in the coastal plains between Fort Bragg and the South Carolina border, Robeson is among the poorest and most diverse rural areas in the United States. There, more than half of those living within one mile of the ACP route are Native American, while three-quarters overall are people of color. Duke Energy, Dominion, and their pipeline partners are planning another compressor station in Northampton County, North Carolina, where more than 80 percent of close neighbors would be African Americans.

Union Hill would shoulder the compressor station—and the health risks that come with it—for the pipeline’s jog through Virginia. A recent study of 18 shale-gas compressors in New York found that together they constituted the seventh-largest point-source of pollution in the entire state, averaging almost 6 million pounds per year of 70 different chemicals known to cause 19 out of 20 major human-health problems, including birth defects and heart, lung, and blood diseases. “The routine emissions surrounding the operation of natural gas compressor stations,” wrote the Institute for Health and the Environment researchers, “increase the risk for most major categories of human disease in the state but especially in the communities where they are sited.”

When asked about this study, Dominion’s Neddenien said the new compressor station would emit less than older ones. Alena Yarmosky, Governor Northam’s press secretary, said that Virginia’s air permit “is the strongest of its kind in the country and ensures that air quality and public health will not be compromised.” “However,” she added, “it is clear community concerns remain and that Dominion/ACP’s outreach has thus far been lacking. The governor hopes that Dominion/ACP will listen and respond to the concerns of this important historic community and act as a good neighbor.”

Attempting to make the project more palatable, the developers have made controversial financial deals with states, tribes, and communities all along the route. Northam’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper each made $58 million mitigation deals with Duke and Dominion in the run-up to state regulators’ granting major environmental permits. Minority communities in both states have complained they had no say in those negotiations. Last spring, under pressure from the National Congress of American Indians, the pipeline developers offered $1 million each to four tribes. The language of the offer prevents the parties from talking about it, but afterward the Rappahannock and Monacan in Virginia each wrote letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission saying the ACP had resolved their concerns. After votes ending in slim margins, North Carolina’s Lumbee and Haliwa-Saponi tribes chose to keep fighting.

In Union Hill, $5.1 million from the utility companies is on the table should the ACP go through. That has divided neighbors in this tiny crossroads, where a University of Virginia study found more than 80 percent of those living within a 1.1-mile radius of the compressor site are minorities, mostly Black but also with 20 percent claiming Native American heritage. “Thirty-three percent are known descendants of formerly enslaved people at nearby plantations,” wrote UVA anthropologist Lakshmi Fjord. (Dominion disputes the report’s methodology and denies claims of environmental racism.)

Walker is the great-great-grandson of the freed slave Taylor Harper, who in the 1880s paid $15 for a 25-acre plot on the former Variety Shade Plantation. Three decades later, Taylor’s son Arthur and other heirs bought another 27 acres for $25. Walker spent his summers learning to farm on the 52-acre site and celebrating a family reunion there every Fourth of July. Several members of the Harper family still live in Union Hill, and ownership of the land is shared by about 100 living heirs. Dominion is trying to take an easement of a tiny fraction of an acre across the Harper plot to connect another pipeline to the compressor site, and the family is trying to stop them in court. Though he grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Richmond, Walker has emerged as one of the leading pipeline opponents.

“That’s my fight, for my family,” says Walker, who coordinated the visit by delegates Price and Aird. “They are mostly elderly and sickly now. Who knows what, with the noise and the methane emissions, what the impact will be on them after living with the compressor station for some time.”

Walker says Union Hill could certainly use the kind of financial help Dominion is offering, which would go toward improving Buckingham County’s 911 communications system, adding four years of funding for six new emergency responders, facility upgrades, and buying a new ambulance, all for the Glenmore rescue station some 10 miles away. Walker recently secured $18,000 from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation in New York to install Wi-Fi at Union Hill’s sister church, Union Grove, along with supporting a solar-installation training program he’s planning in order to grow the green economy in Buckingham. As it stands now, residents pay high cell-phone bills just to get Internet access and have to travel 12 miles for groceries or drive themselves 30 miles to a hospital in Farmville.

“This is something that should have been dealt with years ago by the county as well as the state of Virginia,” Walker says. “It shouldn’t come to the point of having to be blackmailed by Dominion.”

The bulk of Dominion’s offer is $3.5 million for a new community center and staff to run it. That includes $250,000 for unspecified grants through a proposed nonprofit community-development corporation. Opponents claim there have been offers of around $50,000 to individual homeowners to compensate for the ACP’s impacts. Dominion’s Brown denied that, saying the grants could be used to help with home improvements for neighbors, but that will be up to the CDC. “We recognize that this is going to be a change,” said Brown. “You’re used to this bucolic setting…. The level of investment that we’re making I believe you’ll find will be unprecedented anywhere in the country.”

“The community is divided. We have families who are divided,” says Wilson, who was forced out of the pulpit at Union Hill Missionary Baptist Church, though he continues to lead sister congregation Union Grove. “Money doesn’t come without attachments. Five million is a large chunk of money, but it comes nowhere near to offset the real losses. This is a short monetary gain for long-term losses. They’re saying that we’re above the normal range as far as air purity. We’re not trying to go to the bottom like everybody else. We’re trying to keep our air the way it is.”

Activists like Wilson are pushing Northam to backtrack on his support for the ACP, which he gave despite serious concerns expressed by the state’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. Last August, the council called for an emergency task force to assess disproportionate impacts on poor and minority communities, to stop construction on the smaller Mountain Valley Pipeline in southwestern Virginia, to rescind previous ACP permits for a thorough environmental-justice review, and to delay a vote by the state’s Air Pollution Control Board to approve the Buckingham compressor station.

Instead of that delay, though, in November Northam removed two air-board members who had voiced concern about pollution from the compressor impacting residents. Less than a month later, the shorthanded board voted 4-0, with one recusal, to approve the station. Then, in January, Northam announced an executive order replacing the Advisory Council with a new Virginia Council on Environmental Justice. Northam’s secretary on environmental resources, Mark Strickler, invited the former members to reapply to serve on the new council, but some are questioning the governor’s commitment to protecting vulnerable populations.

On March 19, the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, who had pushed for the formation of the original Advisory Council in 2016, submitted a letter calling on Northam to give low-income Virginians of color some leverage in the new council. In particular, the collaborative, formed in 2015 by groups working at the intersection of race and ecology across the state, asked Northam to seat those from impacted communities on the council; to provide funding for them to travel to and from meetings across the state; and to give the council flexibility to address issues brought to them by affected citizens even if they fall outside the governor’s proscribed priorities. Previous council members said the narrow scope of Northam’s order doesn’t leave room for the new group to challenge the state’s ongoing investment in shale gas as a threat to vulnerable communities. They also complained they ran out of funding and were never reimbursed for travel. “An environmental justice council without residents of frontline communities at the table is not an environmental justice council at all,” the letter states. (“We are making every effort to select a diverse group of members who will be able to represent and engage with communities across the Commonwealth on critical environmental justice issues,” the governor’s office said in a statement.)

Racial-justice activists had been hoping Northam might respond to their concerns at the 30th-annual Environment Virginia Symposium held at his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, where he was keynote speaker, at the end of March. Instead, “He chose to totally ignore the issue. That remains a glaring problem,” says Queen Zakia Shabazz, the coordinator of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative. “We just have to keep calling him out and hoping that he will take the opportunity to do the right thing.”

Even with a figure like Al Gore intervening to call the pipeline “a reckless, racist rip-off,” Shabazz doesn’t think Northam feels adequately chastened by the yearbook scandal to lead the pipeline opposition. “It’s not enough to say that you’re sorry, but let your deeds speak for yourself. Right now his deeds are not saying what we want to hear,” she said. “He’s had opportunity after opportunity to prove otherwise. It looks very bleak that he will change his course. There’s a lot of healing to be done, and he’s creating more harm rather than healing.”

Opponents continue to fight on, though, as several of the pipeline’s local, state, and federal permits are tied up in court. In February, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed to appeal the Virginia air-quality permit with the federal Fourth Circuit, which has already vacated federal Fish and Wildlife; Forest; Parks; and Army Corps of Engineers permits. Dominion Energy has promised to appeal the Forest Service dispute to the US Supreme Court by the end of May. Barber’s restoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, meanwhile, is tentatively planning a march from Union Hill to Richmond around the same time.

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