Compressor anxiety: Historic African American community alleges environmental racism

The Union Hill community has been united in fighting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for four years. Courtesy of Friends of Buckingham The Union Hill community has been united in fighting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for four years. Courtesy of Friends of Buckingham

About 50 miles south of Charlottesville, in the small, quiet community of Union Hill, there are far more “No Pipeline” signs than traffic lights.

The historic town of weather-faded homes and churches in bucolic Buckingham County could soon be sliced by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and in what residents say would add insult to injury, it could become home to one of the 600-mile natural gas pipeline’s three proposed compressor stations.

Residents are calling it “blatant environmental racism,” and allege Dominion intentionally erased a large percentage of their population in its application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build the pipeline.

In the final environmental impact statement on the ACP, FERC stated that, on average, there are 29.6 people per square mile in the area surrounding the pipeline’s path in Buckingham—that number was provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Residents say that number was off by about 500 percent.

Members of the anti-pipeline group Friends of Buckingham went door-to-door to survey the Union Hill area. They spoke with 64 percent of the people living in the 99 households within that square mile, and of those 158 residents, 85 percent are African American.

The FERC report didn’t mention Union Hill, where a third of the residents are descendants of the freedmen community that was once enslaved there, and where there are freedmen cemeteries and unmarked slave burials on the site where Dominion wants to build its compressor station, according to Yogaville resident and cultural anthropologist Lakshmi Fjord.

She also noted that Charlottesville’s 29 bypass project was halted by just one slave burial site.

On May 31, the governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice met in Buckingham to report some of its findings, make recommendations and host a public comment session, but beforehand, members stopped by the Union Hill Baptist Church for a quick presentation and tour of the proposed compressor station site.

“Now we are in our golden years, and we’d like to keep it that way,” said John Laury as he stood at the front of the pews. He listed his grievances, including the poisonous air that he says the station, if approved, would emit, and its potential effect on water quality in the town where most people rely on wells. “That’s the only water we have,” he said.

Laury, who lives with his wife, Ruby, on the cattle farm down the hill and to the left of the Baptist church, was born and raised in Buckingham. He says he likes the clean air that his county is known for, the nearby wooded areas brimming with wildlife and the constant hum of birds chirping.

“We want to remain here without interruption from big corporations,” he told the governor’s council before its members filed into a big white church van. Laury drove them less than half a mile to the proposed compressor station site.

There, a large swath of land has been cleared because four Transco pipelines, which carry gas from Texas to New York City, already exist under the soil. The ACP would connect to one of the existing pipelines at the 55,000-horsepower compressor station, and transfer the fracked gas up the east coast.

To the left of the existing clear cut, just into the trees, is where Dominion would like to connect the ACP to the Transco line and build its aboveground compressor station.

Nothing can be built and no trees can be planted on the Transco pipeline corridor, according to Fjord, “which is why it is so galling to landowners to have their farmland seized on working farms, where it bisects the fields they grow, where their cattle graze.”

“No tractor or car can cross over one,” says Fjord. “Nothing. Yet, farmers in Buckingham will have to pay the same property taxes on the pipeline easements as if they were working farmland.”

Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby says once construction on the pipeline is completed, “the only restrictions on the use of the right of way are planting trees and building structures.”

Ann Loomis, Dominion Energy’s vice president of federal affairs, spoke at the governor’s council meeting. She noted that Dominion employs 42 county residents at its Bear Garden Power Station in Buckingham, and said Dominion is a member of the community.

University of Richmond professor of geography and the environment Mary Finley-Brook, who serves on the council’s pipeline subcommittee, gave a report on what her group has learned so far. She also said it does not recommend construction of the ACP.

If it gets built, Finley-Brook said residents can prepare for Dominion to make environmental violations because it already has a record, including several citations from when it started cutting down trees earlier this year. And “blowdowns,” or release of gas (and toxic air pollutants) to relieve pressure in the pipe, happen about 10 times per year at compressor station sites (a figure that Dominion estimates at once every five years). Finley-Brook also noted Dominion’s underreporting of the Union Hill population.

“This was, in my own professional opinion, not an accident,” she said. “This inaccurate information is a tactic that has been used successfully many times.”

The more rural and less densely populated an area is, the thinner the pipe is permitted to be, and fewer shut-off valves are required, she said.

As for the public health impact, she said, “Compressor stations make people sick.”

Pipeline opponent Suzanne Keller, a retired epidemiologist with the Virginia Department of Health, said Buckingham residents can expect around 350 tons of air pollutants to be released each year.

The crowd of about 50 people heard from Michael Dowd, a Department of Environmental Quality representative, who drew jeers when he said, “The community’s health will be protected.” He added, “I can’t guarantee that there won’t be accidents or events at the compressor station.”

But Dowd did make a promise: “The Buckingham compressor will be among the most, if not the most, stringently regulated compression stations in the country.”

There to give a personal testimony was Ray Kemble, a Dimock, Pennsylvania, resident in a Rolling Thunder motorcycle jacket who’s lived near six compressor stations for several years.

The small town of Dimock was featured in the 2010 documentary Gasland, which showed residents lighting their tap water on fire.

Kemble carried a bottle of water that he drew from his neighbor’s well. It was brown and swirled with oil when he shook it. Kemble said he’s been diagnosed with three types of cancer since the compressor stations were built, and he keeps oxygen tanks at his house, so when the air gets too noxious from blowdowns, he has clean oxygen to breathe. He said he often has to leave his home because the air quality is so bad.

Marie Gillespie. Courtesy photo

The council heard from Marie Gillespie, who lives on Union Hill Road adjacent to where Dominion has already cleared a strip of land for the ACP.

“I think I’m the first person who has been directly impacted by the pipeline and compressor station,” she said, describing hearing an awful noise in her backyard, rushing to get dressed and go outside to see the commotion. By the time she did, the trees were already gone.

“I was stricken,” she said. “I was heartbroken. …The stress has already started. Problems have already begun, and I don’t know where it’s going to end.”

Pastor Paul Wilson. Courtesy photo

Pastor Paul Wilson, who leads the Union Hill and Union Grove Baptist churches, also spoke.

“We are ground zero,” he said, and echoed a popular argument against the ACP. “This whole pipeline is based on false premises. Politicians were bought off, and this county had no choice but to say yes.”

Added Wilson, “We refuse to be the sacrificial lamb.”

And another commenter, through tears, and while banging her balled fist, said, “Nobody’s protecting us. Not a soul.” Her last remark drew enormous energy from the pipeline opponents in the room: “We are going to fight this fight. This is not a done deal.”

Updated June 6 at 3:50pm to correct the source of the data used in the FERC’s environmental impact statement and to include Dominion’s response to claims by Lakshmi Fjord and Mary Finley-Brook. 

Updated June 7 at 3:15 with the correct number of Transco pipelines that already exist in Buckingham County, and with the correct project in Charlottesville that was stopped by one slave burial site.

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