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Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Environmental Racism, and the Appalling Silence of the Good People


by Jonathan Sokolow

In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested as part of the Birmingham Campaign, an effort to bring national attention to systemic racism in one of America’s most segregated cities.  As he sat in a jail cell, King wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which would become a bedrock document of the Civil Rights Movement.  Speaking to leaders who, despite good intentions, failed to speak up against injustice, King famously wrote: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

In Virginia, we are now suffering from an “appalling silence” over the environmental racism at the heart of Dominion Energy’s controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline. And time is short. The fate of the ACP, a 600-mile, $5.5-billion, fracked-gas pipeline, together with that of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, will be decided at public hearings of the State Water Control Board on December 6-12.  The pipelines also are the target of a “Water is Life Rally and Concert” in Richmond on December 2.

The appalling silence over Dominion’s plans comes from many who Dr. King would consider to be “good people.”  But the silence has become deafening, particularly with the environmental racism of the linchpin of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – Dominion’s proposed compressor station in Union Hill in Buckingham County, Virginia.

There is no excuse for this silence. The story has been told for several years in protest, in song, on  film and in print – here, here, here and here – among many other places.  The short version is this: Dominion Energy paid $2.5 million to buy a 68-acre parcel from the white descendants of a large tobacco producing slave plantation known as Variety Shade.  It bought the land to build a massive 55,000-horsepower compressor station to service the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for 200 miles in each direction. The compressor station would run 24/7, powered by burning gas from the pipeline, and would regularly spew carcinogenic and other harmful compounds while creating noise that has been described by a landowner who lives near a compressor station as equivalent to a “747 taking off.”  The population within one mile of the proposed facility – an area commonly referred to in pipeline planning documents as the “incineration zone” in case of an accident – is 85% African American.  Many of those residents, as well as unknown others buried in unmarked cemeteries, are descendants of the slaves who worked that plantation and freedmen who acquired some of the land after the Civil War.  Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources is considering naming Union Hill as a state Historic District and Preservation Virginia has listed it as a “Most Endangered Historic Place.”

Terry McAuliffe, the outgoing governor of Virginia, has said nothing – not one word – about Union Hill.  Nor has Governor Elect Ralph Northam, a medical doctor who should be all too familiar with the health effects of such a compressor station.

Meanwhile, in a remarkable, just-filed 250 page document, a coalition of dozens of environmental and community organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to reconsider its October approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  The FERC approval was rammed through by two commissioners hastily appointed by Donald Trump – who has called the ACP one of his top domestic priorities – over the strenuous objection of the only Democrat on the three member panel.  The Trump appointees’ decision was widely criticized, including by Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who pointed to the “suspicious circumstances” under which the decision was made.


The November 13 filing by the environmental groups offers the most detailed and compelling evidence to date that the Union Hill compressor station and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline overall should be rejected.  And it should be rejected not just because construction and operation of another massive fracked-gas pipeline will worsen climate change and cause lasting damage to Virginia’s land and water, but also specifically because of the health and other dangers posed to all people who live in the pipeline’s path — and particularly to communities of color.  Virginia’s leaders – including Democrats who presumably do not want to be complicit in an act of environmental racism that affects people’s health –  should pay attention to the evidence of the health effects of the proposed compressor station as discussed in the FERC filing.  For example:

  • Study of the population around the Buckingham compressor station shows that “many elderly residents report suffering from chronic respiratory ailments such as asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), bronchitis, allergies, and other unspecified heart and lung ailments.”
  • In addition, “many of these residents report high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments that would make them particularly susceptible to the pollution of the compressor station. A number of children were reported to suffer from asthma and other chronic lung diseases as well.”
  • “African Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to live near sources of harmful air pollution and have suffered disproportionately from respiratory sickness as a result. Putting the compressor station in this predominately African American community will compound this legacy of concentrating environmental harms in poorer communities and communities of color.”
  • “The gas turbines for the Buckingham compressor station would run nearly continuously throughout the year to maintain pressure” and according to FERC’s own data, would result in a 40% increase of exposure to fine particulate matter over a 24 hour period, which is “a significant level of increased exposure to a dangerous category of pollutants…above the World Health Organization’s threshold.”
  • “At these levels, long-term exposure can cause an increase in mortality and increased serious health problems, such as respiratory ailments and cardiovascular disease.” Moreover, “even short-term exposure can cause health problems, particularly in sensitive populations like those with respiratory problems or heart disease.”
  • The compressor station would increase nitrogen dioxide pollution by 54.5% in a 24-hour period and “the likely resulting increase in ozone pollution [i.e. smog] on sunny, warm days will be particularly hard on those residents who already suffer from respiratory diseases.”

The proposed Union Hill compressor station is just one window into the fact that the entire Atlantic Coast Pipeline project is infected with environmental racism.

Consider the fact that FERC previously forced Dominion to re-route a portion of the ACP away from the 80% white Norwood-Wingina Rural Historic District because of concerns about the impact on the “social and cultural aspects” of that community, but gave no such consideration to Union Hill.

Consider the fact that federal law, including an Executive Order signed by Bill Clinton in 1994, mandates that federal agencies include environmental justice analyses in their reviews, yet Trump’s FERC boldly claims that it is “exempt” from that requirement.

Consider the fact that another ACP compressor station proposed by Dominion is in a census tract in Northampton County, North Carolina that is 79% African American.

Consider the fact that the pipeline would run through Nash County, North Carolina, which has an Hispanic population that is about three times the state average, as well as Robeson  County, North Carolina, which is more than 50% Native American, particularly of the Lumbee Tribe, and more than 80% Native American in some areas.

Consider the fact that the Native American tribes directly in the pipeline’s path include the Coharie and Haliwa-Saponi in North Carolina and, in Virginia, the Monacan, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Nansemond, and Nottoway nations.

Consider the fact that Dominion placed the town of Garysburg, North Carolina, which is 95% African American, in what is referred to as the “incineration zone,” because it would be obliterated in an accident.

Consider the fact that FERC’s own data showed that 64% of the communities targeted by the ACP raise “environmental justice concerns because of significantly larger percentages of minority or impoverished communities (or both) within one mile of the pipeline route” and that the pipeline would “traverse regions of Eastern North Carolina and Tidewater Virginia that are among the most ethnically and racially diverse and among the poorest regions in their respective states.”

It is long past time for Virginia’s leaders to break their appalling silence on Union Hill. In recent months, elected officials from both parties called on Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality to fix its broken review process.  During the recent election campaign, dozens of candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates, joined by Justin Fairfax, the now Lieutenant Governor-Elect, announced their opposition to the pipelines and many of those leaders, now elected, have courageously continued to speak out.

Just within the past few weeks, the second largest newspaper in North Carolina came out against the ACP, and the largest paper in West Virginia announced its opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline.  More than 1,000 residents of the Wintergreen resort in Virginia went on offense, getting ready to sue Dominion to block condemnation of their property and in West Virginia, a county board of supervisors voted to block one of the compressor stations for the MVP, forcing the pipeline company to sue the Board itself.

The momentum against these pipelines is building.  Now, all people of good will can help break the silence by attending the Water is Life Rally and Concert in Richmond on December 2, by writing or calling their elected representatives or by taking any of the easy actions outlined here.

In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Dr. King noted that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  King said that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” and that “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

We all breathe air.  We all drink water.

We are all Union Hill.

  • Sharon Ponton

    Great post with one error. Dominion is not a developer of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. It’s major partner is EQT, I believe.

    • From the MVP website:

      “The MVP will be constructed and owned by Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, which is a joint venture of EQT Midstream Partners, LP; NextEra US Gas Assets, LLC; Con Edison Transmission, Inc. ; WGL Midstream; and RGC Midstream, LLC. EQT Midstream Partners will operate the pipeline and own a significant interest in the joint venture.”

  • From the Chesapeake Climate Action Network:

    Hundreds Will Gather at State Capitol in Unity for “Water is Life Rally & Concert” Against Fracked-Gas Pipelines

    Event will feature concert at National Theater and historic human circle around Capitol Grounds

    Richmond, Va. — On Saturday, December 2, hundreds of Virginians from all walks of life and from all across the state will gather in Richmond in a show of common cause for the protection of Virginia’s waters and to take a stand against the risky and unneeded Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

    The Water is Life Rally will feature a first-of-its-kind human circle around Capitol Grounds, with citizens joining hand-in-hand and holding ribbons and scarves of blue to represent our universal connection to water. It will also feature an enormous “Water Spirit” puppet created by Richmond’s All The Saints Theater Company, and a range of speakers calling on Virginia leaders to reject the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

    The “Water is Life Rally & Concert” comes four days before the State Water Control Board begins a series of public meetings on the Mountain Valley (Dec. 6 and 7) and Atlantic Coast (Dec. 11 and 12) pipelines, at which the board is expected to decide whether to approve water quality certifications for the projects. This event is intended to send a message to state regulators that Virginians stand in solidarity in opposition to the dangerous and unnecessary fracked-gas pipelines.

    What: Water is Life Rally & Concert
    When: Saturday, December 2, 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
    Visuals: Hundreds of Virginians holding hands and encircling Capitol Grounds; Blue ribbons intertwined through hands to symbolize a river; 40-foot water spirit puppet; other acts of “artivism.”
    Rally Speakers:
    Virginia State Delegate Sam Rasoul (D-11)
    Pastor Paul Wilson, minister of Union Hill Baptist Church
    Dave Sligh, Conservation Director at Wild Virginia and former senior environmental engineer for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
    Harrison Wallace, Virginia Policy Coordinator and Coastal Campaigns Manager at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network
    Mary Beth Coffey, landowner in Bent Mountain
    Concert Speakers & Performers:
    Keynote speaker: Jennifer Carroll Foy, delegate-elect of Virginia District 2
    Chris Hurst, delegate-elect of Virginia District 12
    Representatives of local tribes
    Lobo Marino
    No BS! Brass Band
    The Wild Common
    The First Nations Voice

    The “Water is Life Rally & Concert” is a collaborative effort of more than 30 environmental and arts organizations throughout Virginia. In one voice this coalition will gather and speak out to protect Virginia’s waters against the proposed Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines.

    Following the rally, citizens will walk the few blocks to the National Theater for the concert starting at 2 p.m. and featuring Lobo Marino, No BS! Brass Band, The Wild Common, and The First Nations Voice.

    The “Water is Life Rally and Concert” is put together by a broad coalition of organizations, including:

    Appalachian Voices; ARTivism Virginia; Augusta County Alliance; Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League; Bold Alliance; Chesapeake Climate Action Network; Charlottesville Rising; Climate Action Alliance of the Valley; Concern for the New Generation; Divest RVA; Earth Allies Chapter of BREDL; Earth Folk Collective; Free Nelson; Friends of Augusta; Friends of Buckingham; Friends of Nelson; Guard N Flags; Healing Water RVA; Interfaith Power and Light; Journey the James; Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance; Oil Change International; Poets Against Pipelines; Preserve Floyd; Preserve Giles; Preserve Rockbridge; Protect Our Water; Raptors VA; Richmond Food Not Bombs RVA Interfaith Climate Justice League; Sediment Arts; Sierra Club Virginia Chapter; Virginia River Healers; Virginians Against Pipelines; Walking the Line: Into the Heart of Virginia; Wild Virginia

  • Marcela Maithreyi Andre

    After generations of people dreaming
    and creating a place of peace and purity, comes disregard from outside to rape.
    To violate. To desecrate. To profit bullying people who have led peaceful lives
    in their home for centuries in Buckingham County.

    Many descended from surviving
    slavery in the 1800’s, Buckingham was once the poorest county in the USA. With
    Yogaville and others, since 1980 the property values and quality of life for
    all the county have risen steadily. This pipeline would ruin all the work of
    thousands of people and thousands of equivalent work-years.

    With the backlog of needs in
    education and economic influence, the beautiful Virginia forests and homes in
    Buckingham are eyed by the ruthless and despicable aiming to disregard any
    sense of respect, dignity, or humane social responsibility.

    The pipeline would be a return to
    detrimental social past.

    NO. No. No.

    After investing in creating a Shrine
    for Peace, LOTUS, hundreds of people and lifetimes of work will be devalued by
    the instant depreciation the pipelines create on Buckingham properties.

    Recall the time sewage sludge from
    New York City around 1992 was proposed to be spread on the land in Buckingham,
    for a fee. It was to risk birth defects, and also see your neighbor in tears
    since her neighboring land had become worthless, and the wells were tainted
    with toxic substances. Saying no to that was a good idea.

    Explosions are part of pipelines and
    more so, compressor stations risk malfunctions in trickier, more deadly ways.
    They make noise, they are a case of dynamite with an unlit fuse in waiting. The
    wildlife and the forest would be affected in many detrimental ways per science
    research done on pipelines on lands such as Buckingham County. It would not be
    abundant and healthy wildlife or plant life like it is now.

    On behalf of the ..good people.. who
    gave our lives to create Yogaville, to be home safely and honestly in Virginia,
    my ancestral home as a 1639 Taylor family descendant, We the people of
    Buckingham demand a complete halt to this destruction of our lives’ work.

    No pipeline, no compressor station
    in Buckingham.


    Marcela Maithreyi Andre