It’s long been clear that the folks of the small, predominately black Union Hill community in bucolic Buckingham County don’t want the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and its compressor station on their soil. And now two well-known voices who condemn environmental racism are joining the fight against it.
Former vice president Al Gore and Reverend William Barber, known across the country for his ministry and political activism, came to Buckingham February 19 and told a crowd of hundreds of community members and allies they oppose what they believe is a risky, expensive, and unnecessary natural gas pipeline that Dominion has intentionally chosen to run through a poor, black neighborhood.
“This is what change looks like,” Gore said to the folks who had spent the night dancing, singing and chanting, holding hands, and pumping fists in solidarity with Union Hill. He added, “I think Dominion is messing with the wrong part of Virginia.”
The former vice president, who also serves as founder and chairman of Climate Reality Project, said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commision never should have given Dominion permission to start building the ACP in the first place, and that current gas pipelines in the country have almost twice as much capacity as the amount of gas flowing through them. Demand for natural gas has decreased as people switch to renewable energy sources and use newer energy-saving technology such as LED lighting, he added.
“This proposed pipeline is a reckless, racist ripoff,” said Gore loudly and passionately into his microphone, bringing most of the crowd to its feet.
Big utility companies like Dominion don’t really make their money by selling electricity or gas, he said, but by building new capacity and adding the cost into their rate base. “If the pipeline is not needed, they have a powerful economic incentive to build it anyway,” he said, echoing what ACP opponents have contended since it was proposed half a decade ago.
The Union Hill story sparked Gore’s interest when he read about a historically significant, low-income community of color being “insulted and abused” by Dominion, which is trying to wreak havoc on a community it thought couldn’t defend itself, he said.
“We’re here to say to Union Hill, you are not standing alone,” said Gore. “We are standing with you.”
ACP spokesperson Karl Neddenien says Dominion has “profound respect” for the Union Hill community, and it plans to invest $5 million to build a community center and upgrade the county’s rescue squad.
Dominion says it chose Union Hill for one of three of the pipeline’s compressor stations because it intersects with an existing pipeline, and because the for-sale property was large enough to also allow for trees and vegetation on-site, with the nearest home a quarter-mile away. The other two, one at the beginning of the pipeline’s route in Lewis County, West Virginia, and the other near the Virginia-North Carolina State line, have also prompted pushback.
Part of Dominion’s justification was also its calculation of approximately 29.6 people per square mile in the surrounding area. Residents say that number is off by about 500 percent, and during their own door-to-door survey of the Union Hill area, they determined that approximately 85 percent of those people are African American.
A third of the county’s residents are descendants of the freedmen community that was established there by former slaves. Dominion is planning to build the compressor station atop freedmen cemeteries and unmarked slave burials, according to Yogaville resident and cultural anthropologist Lakshmi Fjord, who spoke briefly at the event.
Attendees also heard from Mary Finley-Brook, a University of Richmond professor of geography and the environment who served on Governor Ralph Northam’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, which recommended against the pipeline last summer. She said her council exposed disproportionate risks for minority communities if the pipeline is built.
“Historic Union Hill is the wrong place to build a compressor station,” said Finley-Brook, who pointed out that poor internet and phone access in Buckingham could mean residents won’t be properly notified of scheduled blowdowns at the station, when gas and toxic air pollutants are released to relieve pressure in the pipe. She also noted the daily safety risk of fires or explosions due to highly pressurized gas equipment and flammable contents.
Reverend Barber touched on how environmental racism is systemic, and how pipelines like the ACP don’t usually run through affluent areas, though politicians and other people of power will encourage poorer communities to accept them.
“Everybody that tells you to be alright with it coming through your community—ask them why it isn’t coming through theirs,” said Barber.
Dominion’s Neddenien says safety standards at the compressor station, if built, will be the strictest of any compressor station in the country, and emissions will be 50 to 80 percent lower than any other station in Virginia.
Barber counters if Northam truly believes that, “request it to be in your backyard.”
Barber also said the power to protest the pipeline lies in the hands of the community, and clarified that he and Gore came to Buckingham by invitation.
“We didn’t come here to lead the fight, we just came here to say, ‘Y’all fight like you never fought before.’”
Irene Ellis Leach is one of those Union Hill community members. Her family has operated a farm four miles away from the proposed site of the compressor station for 117 years, where original buildings built in 1804 are still standing. She says Dominion insists on crossing through the middle of the cattle fields she uses most.
Now she’s one of many landowners in the incineration zone, or the potential impact radius, of 1,100 feet on either side of the pipeline. If it blows, that’s how far the flames will reach.
“If something goes wrong, the resulting fire can’t be put out. It has to burn out,” she says. “We could lose everything, including our lives.”