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Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics: The Case of Dominion Energy and the Historically African-American Community of Union Hill, Virginia

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by Suzanne Keller, retired epidemiologist

On December 18, 2018, Governor Northam established the Virginia Complete Count Commission to address historically low Census response rates across the Commonwealth.  Complete and accurate Census data is important, as federal dollars and legislative districts are at stake.  Moreover, Census data are utilized in regulatory decisions.  One need look no further than the December 19, 2018 Virginia Air Pollution Control Board meeting for a particularly egregious example of how incomplete Census data can harm Virginia citizens.

The Air Pollution Control Board was meeting to consider an application by Dominion Energy for a massive 54,000-hp, fracked-gas compressor station in the historic African-American Union Hill neighborhood of Buckingham county.  DEQ staff presented previously reported demographic, environmental justice, and site-selection data in exhausting and excruciating detail.

As an informed participant in the air permit process, I wondered if I was in a parallel universe, where the mendacity and banality of our national discourse had infected the permitting process. Or perhaps, as Mark Twain quipped, we were just hearing “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

DEQ staff reported data that does not meet requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the best practices for environmental justice analysis, and most importantly, that had already been refuted by local data.

What are we to think when state agency officials stand before a citizen Board and the public to present refuted statistics?  In response, the Board wisely opened another public comment period to give citizens the opportunity to once again set the record straight.

First let’s address the weakness of Census data, the very issue that Governor Northam hopes to address with the Complete Count Commission. According to the Leadership Conference Fund, the 2010 Census undercounted the national African-American population by more than 800,000, with African-American children being undercounted at twice the rate of non-Hispanic white children.  Because the undercounting of minorities, the elderly and children is a documented problem, it was incumbent upon Dominion to dig deeper to determine if there were environmental justice populations adjacent to its proposed fracked-gas compressor station site.  Without accurate demographic data, no assessment of disproportionate impact – the key question in environmental justice reviews – can be performed.

Dominion’s perfunctory analysis for environmental justice, using unreliable Census block data, leads me to conclude that Dominion chose the site for the compressor station and THEN found statistics that justified their choice — without regard for the Union Hill neighborhood, its history, its churches and its people.

Thanks to field research by Dr. Lakshmi Fjord, visiting professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia, we have accurate and reliable data on the population and demographics of people who live within a mile of the proposed compressor station.  These data were collected in a door-to-door survey.  In EPA and NEPA guidance for environmental justice analysis, local data trumps Census data, due to the already described limitations of Census data.

The Census data submitted by Dominion and reported by DEQ undercounts the number of households within a mile of the proposed compressor station by half, reporting 41 households, compared to the 99 households found by field researchers.  The census data shows that only 95 people live in the one-mile radius, and that 70.5% are white.  The field research shows that 199 people live in 75 households (that responded), and that the majority of the 83% minority population is African American.   A third of the respondents are descendants of formerly enslaved people at nearby plantations, including the Variety Shade plantation, where the proposed compressor station is sited.

Upon visiting Union Hill and hearing the results of the field research, as well as the personal stories of affected citizens, the Governor’s Council on Environmental Justice concluded that the siting of the compressor station in Union Hill was indeed environmental racism.

Only in a former slave state could we witness descendants of the slave owners continue to profit (by sale of the property for ten times the going rate) from that sordid past, while Dominion subjects the descendants of slaves to a huge, polluting industrial facility in their neighborhood.

The erasure of the history and people of Union Hill in Buckingham county by Dominion and DEQ will result in environmental injustice unless the Air Board denies the air permit for the compressor station.

I agree with the governor that the 2020 census should be as complete and accurate as possible. I have shown how inaccurate and incomplete data has deleterious consequences for an historic African American community.  It’s not just the loss of federal dollars at stake, it’s the lives, well-being and health of Virginia citizens when census data is used to erase them.