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Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Files Brief Supporting Environmental Justice for Historic African-American Community in Virginia


The following press release is from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. On a related note, also see Virginia NAACP, 28 Members of the General Assembly, Center for Earth Ethics File Amicus Brief: Union Hill “deserves our protection and our respect.”


June 10, 2019

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Files Brief Supporting Environmental Justice for Historic African American Community in Virginia

Union Hill, VA – On Friday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed an amicus curiae brief or “friend of the court” in the case Friends of Buckingham, et al. v. State Air Pollution Control Board, et al., a case pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit involving the potential harms facing Union Hill; an African American community in Buckingham County, Virginia. The brief was filed in support of the community’s challenge to a permit granted by the Commonwealth of Virginia for the construction of a compressor station on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). The suit alleges that the compressor station will have disastrous effects on the community’s environment and threaten to erase the community’s history and culture.  

“The disproportionate effects of pollution on communities of color are a problem nationwide, and Virginia is no exception,” said Dorian Spence, director of special litigation and advocacy at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “People of color, particularly African Americans, around the country are exposed to much more air pollution than other groups, and endure the devastating effects it has on community health. It is critical that governments and industries consider environmental justice concerns when planning new industrial developments in order to combat this trend.”

Union Hill is a small, historic African-American community seventy-five miles west of Richmond, Virginia. The town was founded by freedmen and freedwomen in the immediate wake of the Civil War, is home to many families who have sustained themselves for generations, and includes two historic churches that began as brush arbors for slaves prior to Emancipation. The location chosen for the compressor station is one of historical significance as it was a former plantation and houses the gravesites of former slaves.

Prior to the permit’s approval, a University of Virginia survey found that 83 percent of the people living within a one-mile radius of the proposed site are people of color. Federal policy dictates that no community should “bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences” of industrial pollution. However, research has repeatedly demonstrated that communities with higher percentages of people of color, especially of African-Americans, tend to bear the burden of industrial pollution, and therefore suffer much higher rates of health issues linked to pollution, including asthma, birth defects, and cancer.

The amicus brief states: “…multiple reports have found that the burdens of pollution still fall disproportionately on communities of color.  A 2007 study titled Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, and a 2017 NAACP study titled Fumes Across the Fence-Line, found that people of color continue to make up the majority of residents who live closest to industrial facilities that produce harmful pollutants.  Neighborhoods that host industrial facilities are comprised of 56 percent people of color on average, whereas non-host neighborhoods are typically comprised of 30 percent people of color.  Overall, of the approximately 9.2 million people living within three kilometers of hazardous industrial facilities, more than 55 percent are people of color.”

Studies of the compressor station’s potential impact have shown that the station would increase the local volume of air pollutants from less than one hundred pounds per year to over 115 tons annually. This radical increase in exposure would almost certainly exacerbate health conditions in the Union Hill community where over 50 percent of residents report pre-existing illnesses including asthma, allergies, chronic bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other related health issues.

The brief includes case studies from communities suffering from environmental harms including; Port Arthur, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Eno Road (Dickson County), Tennessee; and the Bronx, New York City, New York. The Lawyers’ Committee’s brief was filed in support of the petitioners’ challenge to the Buckingham Compressor Station permit. The challenge was brought by Friends of Buckingham and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, two community organizations that serve the Union Hill community.

The amicus curiae brief can be read here.

About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. Now in its 56th year, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is continuing its quest to “Move America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and voting rights.


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