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Echoes of a Dark Past at Virginia’s Standing Rock: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  William Faulkner

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by Jonathan Sokolow, an attorney and activist from Reston, Virginia.

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  William Faulkner

In March 1865, as the Civil War approached its fiery end, Congress created the United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.  “The Bureau was empowered to distribute clothing, food, and fuel to destitute freedmen and oversee ‘all subjects’ relating to their condition in the South.” The Bureau also was authorized “to divide abandoned and confiscated land into forty-acre plots for rental to freedmen and loyal refugees and eventual sale” and to create Freedmen’s schools to provide education to the newly freed population.  Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction (31, 43).

Freedmen’s Bureau offices were established across the south.  One of those field offices was in Buckingham County, Virginia.  Buckingham was a majority Black county before, during and after the Civil War and it was home to many freedmen who had purchased their freedom even before the end of slavery.  The Bureau took up residence at the Buckingham County Courthouse, an historic building designed by Thomas Jefferson and it established a Freedmen’s school there, known as the Lincoln School.

In February 1869, an arsonist burned the Buckingham County courthouse to the ground.  As Dr. Lakshmi Fjord, a cultural anthropologist and Visiting Scholar at the University of Virginia has written, the fire “destroyed all records of enslavement, wills [and] slave purchases of their freedom…that might be used by the 2:1 majority former slaves to sue former masters for restitution.

Buckingham County is the geographic heart of Virginia.  But the heart holds memories and in Buckingham County, those include Virginia’s complicated and often painful past.

Which brings us to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

For the past three years, a consortium of companies let by Dominion Energy, Virginia’s powerful and politically connected energy monopoly, has sought approval for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The ACP, as it is known, is a proposed massive $5 billion, 600-mile-long pipeline meant to transport fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina.  The potential harm that the pipeline would have on the ecology, tourism, economic development and property values of the rural counties through which it would pass has been well documented.

Less well known is the specific threat posed by Dominion’s three proposed compressor stations, one of which would be in Virginia.  Compressor stations provide the compression that propels the flow of gas and thus are the linchpins of the entire pipeline.  They are a major industrial endeavor, posing health risks to the surrounding community and producing noise and the threat of leaks and explosions.  They run 24/7 and “regularly release toxic emissions such as methane, nitrogen dioxides, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) in the air with ‘blow-down events’, or ‘venting’ which cause elevated contamination of the air.”  Pipeline companies usually place compressor stations every 40-70 miles along a pipeline route.  But Dominion proposes to build one massive compressor station to service the entire length of the pipeline in Virginia some 200 miles in each direction.

Dominion first sought approval of the ACP compressor station on national forest land, but the U. S. Forest Service deemed it too much of a threat to wildlife.  So Dominion decided to spare wildlife and move the threat to  Union Hill, in the heart of Buckingham County.  Union Hill is a beautiful place surrounded by mountain views and lush green forests fed by clear streams and tributary rivers of the historic James River.  Union Hill also is “a mostly African-American community that was founded by slaves freed after the Civil War” and the families of those freedmen still live there.  The community is home to two historic Black churches, one of which, Union Hill Baptist Church, was founded in 1868 and traces its lineage to the outdoor arbor Mulberry Grove Baptist Church where slaves gathered to pray prior to emancipation.

To facilitate its compressor station siting plan, Dominion bought a 68-acre plot in Union Hill from a company called Variety Shade Landowners of Virginia, Inc.  According to county records, Variety Shade owns 1,400 acres in the area. Dominion paid Variety Shade $2.5 million for the property – $37,765 per acre –  more than ten times the area’s average price per acre of $3,000.  Within a one-mile radius of the proposed Variety Shade site, the population is 85% African American, according to the findings from a door-to-door household population and cultural resource study conducted by Dr. Fjord and teams of local community members and volunteers.  At least one-third of those residents are the descendants of freedmen who either purchased their freedom before the Civil War or were freed as a result of the war.  In addition to the two historic Black churches, this community’s historic resources include the sites of two Black schools, a large unmarked slave burial site and many cemeteries with freedmen burials as well as recent family burials.  The household cultural resources study and interviews with former residents with long-time family history in Union Hill uncovered this largely forgotten history.

The name “Variety Shade” is not a realtor’s invention.  Instead, it “was the plantation home of Marcia Louise Moseley and her husband, Colonel Thomas Moseley Bondurant.”  The Moseley Bondurant family produced tobacco for export and the land company that bears that name was started by the descendants of the plantation owners.  Those descendants maintain a website, which refers to the land as a “lovely plantation” that no longer exists “except in the memory of those who loved and admired it.”

Variety Shade was in fact a plantation, a place where human slavery was practiced.  Human chattel labored to produce tobacco and, no doubt, many of them lay buried today in cemeteries that are as yet unmarked.  Dominion now seeks to build its only massive fracked gas compressor station complex there, in what remains an agricultural district, threatening the health, safety, property rights and property values of today’s residents, many of whom can trace their lineage back to those who previously labored there as slaves.

Given this history, it is no surprise that Dominion’s plan for historic Union Hill has generated “community outrage.”  And that outrage cuts across racial lines.  Three years ago, when Dominion first proposed the pipeline, community members organized Friends of Buckingham, which has been working with the churches and the community at large ever since to fight the proposed pipeline and compressor station.  Charles White, a Buckingham County historian and publisher of The Informant, a local African-American newspaper, has noted that “people are saying it would disproportionately affect black people” but “from what I can see, it affects everybody.”  Carlos Arostegui, whose 184-acre Whispering Creek Farm lies one mile from the proposed compressor station site, notes that he gets a “double wammy” because Dominion proposes to run the pipeline up against his dairy farm and use his land as a work area and then “I get to live the rest of my life with a compressor station.”  Rev. Paul Wilson, pastor of the Union Hill Baptist Church and Union Grove Missionary Baptist Church, which have a combined membership of 250 people, has noted that the churches are “within walking distance of the compressor station.”  Concern for a New Generation, a grassroots group based in Union Hill, has joined the fight with the support of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.  And Marie Gillespie, whose property on Union Hill Road is in the pipeline’s path and across the way from the proposed compressor, says simply “we feel like we’ve been invaded.”

In May 2016, Preservation Virginia, a non-profit whose mission since 1889 has been “perpetuating and revitalizing Virginia’s cultural, architectural and historic heritage,” listed Union Hill as one of Virginia’s “Most Endangered Historic Places.”  The danger identified by Preservation Virginia: Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

In early July, opponents of the ACP completed a 150-mile hike that tracked its path ofrom the West Virginia border, through the Virginia mountains, and finishing at Union Hill Baptist Church.  The event, Walking the Line: Into the Heart of Virginia, culminated with a celebration at the church and a water ceremony where the hikers poured water gathered from the streams and rivers they crossed and which would be in danger if the ACP is built.  The hikers, residents of Union Hill and supporters and friends from across the state, gathered to sing what is fast becoming the anthem of this growing movement, “Sow ‘em on the Mountain, Reep ‘em in the Valley,” which reminds everyone that we always reap what we sow.  Rev. Wilson preached about the threat posed by Dominion and the courage of the community that is fighting for its survival.  He said, “this is why we take a stand, even against an entity like Dominion.”  Marie Gillespie tearfully said “we are living with this nightmare.”

Dominion’s effort to impose this industrial nightmare on the people of Union Hill, without regard to the history, water rights and land rights of the people who live there, has justifiably invited comparisons to the ongoing battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.  Commentators have noted that “the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could be the east coast’s Dakota Access Pipeline” and that opposition is building “from people concerned about environmental impacts, property values, landscape preservation and dangerous eminent domain precedents.”  Opposition to the pipeline is growing, now including more than 75 environmental, conservation and public advocacy groups supported by sophisticated legal teams.  They are pushing for strict enforcement action by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which has oversight responsibility under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.

The struggle will not be easy.  Dominion Energy has long dominated politics in Virginia, donating more than $14.6 million to both Democrats and Republicans over the years.  Buckingham politicians have refused to comment on whether they have received contributions from Dominion, but the company clearly has started to pump cash into Buckingham through its so called “Community Investment Program.”    Republican Party support for the fossil fuel industry surprises no one, but on the Democratic side, the story is more complex.

During the recent Democratic primary for governor, Ralph Northam, the current Lieutenant Governor, was challenged by former Congressman Tom Perriello, who came out early and hard against both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline.  Perriello announced that he would not take campaign donations from Dominion or any other publicly regulated utility.  In contrast, Dominion and its executives have given Northam and his political action committee $109,283, more than twice what they have given to Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for governor.  Indeed, in this election year Dominion has given more money to Democratic candidates than Republican candidates in Virginia.  In May, Dominion chief executive Thomas Farrell sent a letter to Dominion’s 76,000 employees urging them to “consider” the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in deciding for whom to vote in the June 13 primary.  As the Washington Post noted, “the point of Farrell’s letter was clear to anyone following the governor’s race in Virginia — particularly the closely fought Democratic contest, where the pipelines have been one of the few policy distinctions between the two candidates.”

Northam went on to win the Democratic primary, with some help from a “shadowy” dark money group whose funding has yet to be revealed.  But Northam lost by lopsided margins  among Democratic voters in the rural western counties where opposition to the ACP has run strong. (Nelson: 91% – 9%; Buckingham: 73% – 27%; Augusta: 65% – 35%; Cumberland: 63% – 37%; Highland: 62% – 38% and Prince Edward: 61% – 39%).

Although pipeline politics impacts local communities without regard to political affiliation, no one seriously expects Republican Party leaders to come to the rescue of Union Hill’s historic African American community.  After all, the nominal leader of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, made overt appeals to racism and xenophobia the centerpiece of his election campaign.   The complicity and silence of some Democratic leaders, however, is surprising to some – and far more troubling.

The Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, has come out strongly against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  Fairfax also has refused to take campaign donations from Dominion, a position he shares with both of the candidates he defeated in his primary election.  At least fifty current candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates also have taken a pledge, organized by political action committee Activate Virginia, to never take contributions from Dominion.  Meanwhile, Northam continues to take donations from Dominion and, barely one month after defeating Perriello in the primary, Northam went on a conservative radio talk show to voice his “enthusiastic” support for the ACP and added “if its done safely and responsibly it’s going to move forward.”   Northam thus stands alone as the only Democrat among the five who ran for Virginia’s two top offices who is both pro-pipeline and willing to take donations from its builder, leaving the Democrats split on these issues at the top of their ticket.

Northam apparently has not uttered a word about what is happening at Union Hill.  He reportedly made a public promise during a campaign event before the primary to visit Buckingham to discuss the compressor station.  It never happened.  More recently, his spokesman reiterated on Twitter that Northam would visit Buckingham and Northam himself promised to convene multiple “focus groups” with communities opposed to the pipeline.  To date, these words have not been matched by deeds.

During the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” That quote greets visitors as they enter the sanctuary of Union Hill Baptist Church.

In Union Hill, right now, the question is who will stay silent, who will speak out and who will take action?  Because the past is never dead in Union Hill.

It is not even past.