Virginia: Remember, and Protect, Union Hill

Dominion Energy was in court again on Tuesday for its unnecessary Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is proposed for Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia and would cross the Appalachian Trail as well as several historic and vulnerable communities. The case highlights what has long been known—and ignored—by regulators: the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a textbook case of environmental injustice.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard argument on whether the Virginia Air Control Board lawfully approved an air pollution permit for the pipeline’s proposed compressor station in Union Hill, Virginia. Union Hill is an unincorporated community an hour west of Richmond that dates to Emancipation. Many of its residents are descendants of freed enslaved people. It is home to a large enslaved people burial ground on a former plantation. In 2016, Preservation Virginia identified Union Hill as one of the most endangered historic sites in Virginia because of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (see here for my colleague Montina Cole’s historic look at the Union Hill community). 

A broad coalition of conservation, environmental, community and faith groups (including NRDC) has fought this dangerous project for years, including the Union Hill compressor station. Compressor stations are large, noisy facilities that enable gas to move through a pipeline at high speed. They pollute nearby communities with a variety of toxins, including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency noted in 2016 that short-term exposure to nitrogen oxides can trigger asthma and may contribute to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Particulate matter can become lodged in the lungs and is linked to heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, impaired lung function, and premature death. For particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter (less than 1/30th of a human hair), which the Union Hill compressor station would emit, EPA acknowledges there is no safe level of exposure. 

When industry builds compressor stations in a low-income community or a community of color, particularly an African-American community, existing health inequities can be worsened. For example, according to the NAACP, approximately 13.4 percent of African-American children have asthma, compared to 7.3 percent for white children. Regulators are supposed to account for these inequities to protect already burdened communities. Union Hill residents have been rallying, organizing, and ringing the alarm bell about these risks for years; others along the pipeline route, including Indigenous and African-American communities in North Carolina, have raised similar concerns.

The state Air Board ignored them. Instead, it concluded that because the compressor station would meet basic legal requirements, there was no need to take into consideration the unique impacts that the compressor station would have on Union Hill. This is nonsense—just because something is required doesn’t mean that it is sufficient to address the specific circumstances at hand. This is why the law requires more; specifically, the Air Board had to analyze the reasonableness of the project in light of the facts and circumstances at issue, including the degree of injury or interference with health, safety, and property use the project may cause, and the suitability of the Union Hill project site.

The Air Board is not the only agency that failed to consider the environmental justice implications of the project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—which approves new interstate gas pipelines—also conducted a severely flawed environmental justice analysis, inconceivably concluding that Union Hill is not even a community of color worthy of an environmental justice review. FERC used an outrageously large 500-square-mile area to evaluate whether an environmental justice community exists within one mile of the compressor station (more on that here). By so doing, the agency diluted the proposed project’s effects on African-Americans by including in its review majority white communities located many miles from the proposed compressor station. Door-to-door surveys, which existed and were filed with FERC (or a simple visit) reveal that Union Hill—the actual proposed site—is overwhelmingly African-American (fortunately, during Tuesday’s oral argument, Virginia’s deputy Solicitor General conceded this fact, but the federal government has yet to agree).

FERC’s flawed environmental analysis is also being challenged in a second court case (and NRDC filed an amicus brief in that case), but it has been paused pending a third court case that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider. The high court will review whether the U.S. Forest Service illegally granted Atlantic Coast Pipeline an easement to cross the Appalachian Trail. The Fourth Circuit ruled that the Forest Service lacked that authority. 

Union Hill residents should not be at the mercy of the courts to protect their health, land, and livelihoods. State and federal regulators should have protected them against unscrupulous project developers with unparalleled influence in Virginia. Until they do, we cannot rest—and neither should you.

About the Authors

Gillian Giannetti

Attorney, Sustainable FERC Project, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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