by Jon Sokolow
Lies are best told when there is no paper trail.
And no Freedom of Information Act.
Somebody should explain that to David Paylor, the deeply unpopular Director of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
And someone should tell Dr. Ralph Northam that children’s lives are at stake.
For more than four years, Dominion Energy has sought to build a massive, fracked-gas/methane-fueled compressor station in the historic community of Union Hill, a predominantly African American community founded by Freedmen in Buckingham County, Virginia after the Civil War, as part of its $7 billion, 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline. During that time, opponents have noted the indisputable fact that the compressor station would spew a variety of toxins into the air and water, and that these would disproportionately affect African Americans, who experience a higher level of respiratory conditions such as asthma, than the population at large.
Opponents have demanded that the Commonwealth of Virginia be required to perform a health assessment of the several hundred residents of Union Hill to get a baseline of their health status. They have point to a detailed door by door study that already has been done of the 99 homes in close proximity to the proposed compressor station. That study revealed that 59% of Union Hill residents have a preexisting medical condition, including asthma, allergies, multiple sclerosis, lupus, COPD, chronic bronchitis and pneumonia, congestive heart disease, heart disease and diabetes.
The Virginia Air Pollution Control Board is scheduled to vote on an air permit for the Union Hill compressor station on January 8. Meanwhile, the Governor’s own Advisory Council on Environmental Justice and the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP have called for a qualitative risk assessment and a Health Impact Assessment before Virginia even considers this proposed project.
Which brings us to DEQ Director David Paylor and his lies.
On December 19, the Air Board held a public meeting at which it decided to delay a vote on the proposed compressor station pending further public comments on the demographics of Union Hill. DEQ announced that there would be a very short written public comment period ( seven business days over the Christmas and New Year’s break) and that the public would not be allowed to speak at the January 8 meeting. And DEQ announced something else that was very curious.
DEQ said that the public would not be allowed to comment – in writing or in person – “on the conduct of a health assessment by the Virginia Department of Health.”
Now we know why Paylor’s DEQ is trying to ban any discussion regarding the health of the residents of Union Hill.
On December 19, Paylor made some brief comments before hundreds of concerned citizens and the remaining four voting members of the Air Board. Governor Ralph Northam infamously purged two other board members in November, six days after they raised concerns about environmental racism, and then banned their two replacements from voting on this project. Paylor was asked whether Virginia could do a health assessment of the potential impact of the compressor station on the residents of Union Hill.
He responded by saying that such a study could be done – but that it could not happen until after the compressor station was in operation for two years.
That struck the people who were present as odd in the extreme. It’s like telling a smoker to smoke for two years before we can determine if it will affect your health.
It turns out that Paylor lied.
Paylor also described what sounded like a conversation he had had with the Virginia Department of Health. But it turns out that Paylor’s interaction with the health department was not only in a conversation but in writing.
In a just released email that was sent to Paylor on December 6, Dr. Caroline Holsinger, Director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Environmental Epidemiology, said that she had conferred with the State Toxicologist and that he “did indicate that we could do a health assessment on projected data.”
Nothing about being unable to do the study until after the compressor station was built.
Nothing about having to wait two years.
Dr. Holsinger said that the Department of Health “can conduct a health assessment” and that in order “to initiate a health assessment, we would need some data” either from DEQ or from Dominion. The department could then follow up later and compare the projected data with data gathered after operations began.
She noted that the kind of data they would need would include “any special populations to consider (children, elderly, those with compromised health),” as well as “peak exposure” that was “expected to occur,” together with the name and concentrations of each chemical emitted and other data.
Dr. Holsinger said “we would be happy to reach out to the best points of contacts to further discuss potential data” and she copied the state’s Deputy Commissioner for Population Health and State Epidemiologist and the Deputy Commissioner for Governmental and Regulatory Affairs “for their awareness.”
Almost one month later, it appears that David Paylor did nothing to let Dr. Holsinger know who the “best points of contacts” might be so that the health department could initiate its study.
David Paylor disclosed none of this to the Air Board. He did not reveal that the health department could commence a health assessment now, based on demographic information and projected emissions data. He did not stress that the top officials of the health department had been advised of this situation and that the department was “happy to reach out to the best points of contacts” now – not at some undefined time in the future, to start collecting data.
Paylor did not tell the Air Board on December 19 that thirteen days earlier, on December 6, the health department had offered to commence a health assessment now. And that he had done nothing to help them get started.
Instead, Paylor made it sound like it was impossible to get any useful health information until after the compressor station is in operation, until after the air permit is approved.
In other words, Paylor lied. And now we all know that he lied.
Will the Air Board let Paylor get away with this lie? Or will it delay a vote on the compressor station permit until the health assessment study is done. That is exactly what was demanded by the state NAACP and the Governors’ Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. And the Department of Health is now happy to commence it.
Another question: will Governor Ralph Northam, himself a licensed pediatric neurologist, do anything about this? People’s lives are at stake – and that includes children – eighth generation descendants of the freed slaves who founded Union Hill.
Thousands of people in Virginia and around the United States now know that #WeAreAllUnionHill.
What does Dr. Northam have to say?
And what does Attorney General Mark Herring, who is an announced candidate for Governor of Virginia as well as the attorney for the Air Board and for DEQ, have to say?
We need to know the answers to these questions. People’s lives are on the line.
Meanwhile, your voice can be heard. Sign this petition! These children are our children.
We are all Union Hill.