Path to Racial Equity in VA Includes Environmental Justice

Black History Month is a time of remembrance – to remember and celebrate African American achievements and culture, but also to remember those parts of our nation’s history that we sometimes might like to forget. “Those who cannot remember the past,” as George Santayana taught, “are condemned to repeat it.”

Sign at “The Moral Call for Ecological Justice in Buckingham” Event

Photo by Montina Cole

During this special month, I honor and again highlight Union Hill – a historic and culturally rich African American community in Buckingham County, Virginia that is home to the descendants of slaves and freedmen who emerged from the horrors of slavery to build a community.

Despite this achievement, Union Hill today faces another struggle that echoes the disenfranchisement, cruelty and economic greed of the past. Dominion Energy wishes to snake its unneeded 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline through three states, including Virginia, and, despite strong community opposition, place a polluting industrial pipeline compressor station in Union Hill.

Virginia Governor Northam’s blackface scandal, and his white-washing of slavery by calling slaves “indentured servants from Africa,” is disgraceful, but it pales in comparison to the environmental injustice Governor Northam has allowed and actively facilitated in Union Hill regarding the compressor station.  The Virginia State Air Control Board approved a crucial permit for the industrial facility, but only after Governor Northam removed two board members who voiced environmental justice concerns about the facility’s impact on the Union Hill community. The environmental justice concerns associated with gas infrastructure aren’t unknown. The NAACP has reported on the disproportionate placement of gas infrastructure in low-income communities and communities of color, as well as their suffering “at greater rates from health issues associated with natural gas infrastructure.”

Additionally, Governor Northam’s own Advisory Council on Environmental Justice identified the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s potential disproportionate impact on Union Hill and recommended a moratorium on gas infrastructure in Virginia.

Yet Governor Northam did nothing.

Even as evidence of the lack of need for the pipeline continues to mount, and its price tag has increased from $4.5 billion to $7.5 billion, the Northam administration remains resolute in its inaction. The lack of need for the increasingly embattled pipeline is clear, given the pipeline developer’s flawed energy demand forecasts, yet the company’s opportunity to reap lucrative profits, at ratepayers’ expense, remains, due to the Virginia government’s failure to protect the public interest. Notably, the failure to protect those who would pay the bill for the unneeded pipeline is not limited to Virginia officials. For instance, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) also green-lighted the project, consistent with its continuing practice of approving virtually every proposed pipeline, regardless of the detrimental effects. FERC’s policy approach is widely denounced by many, including NRDC, who have called for reforms. But Governor Northam is also responsible for protecting Virginians, and the state’s permitting authority should have been used to protect the public interest, including residents in Union Hill.

Now, focusing on the error of his ways regarding the blackface revelations, Northam has professed a desire to further racial equity in Virginia, and is traveling throughout the state on a reconciliation “listening tour.” Racial equity, however, requires meaningful action in the form of racially equitable results, and racial equity in Virginia must include environmental justice. This includes clean energy -- not polluting gas infrastructure in a historic African American community. Clean energy resources, such as solar and wind energy, would provide more jobs than the largely temporary ones the pipeline would bring, and without the public health and safety risks, environmental damage, and climate disruption that polluting pipeline infrastructure will yield.

We should not be distracted by what are certainly appalling racist symbols, or by expressed good intentions to promote racial equity. Environmental justice action is now critically required. While we talk, climate disruption continues to manifest. While leaders fail to act in the public interest, Union Hill remains threatened.

The path to take is clear: the path of environmental sustainability, good clean energy jobs, and healthy communities. It is not the path of a polluting, unneeded, and unjust gas pipeline. If the Governor truly wants to leave a legacy of racial equity, then let it begin in Union Hill. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has said, “the time is always right to do what’s right.” Northam should seize this moment.  

First, Governor Northam should stop in Union Hill during his listening tour to see for himself the place where slaves toiled, bled, and died, and where freed slaves later took off their shackles and made a life for themselves and their families. He has been invited to visit this community, but has failed to do so. Let him see the needs that still remain to be addressed, where many are elderly, and living in one of the economically poorest counties in the state. He will also see clearly, despite the pipeline company’s and state Department of Environmental Quality’s insulting claims to the contrary, that Union Hill is in fact a predominantly African American community.

Second, with a fuller understanding of the situation, the Governor should work to reverse the Department of Environmental Quality’s compressor station permit decision.  

Third, the Governor should oppose Dominion’s rapacious and grasping efforts to have Congress legislate a way out of the pipeline project’s growing troubles through a legislative fix that would allow the pipeline to barrel through the scenic Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway.

Many, including NRDC and people across the nation, are lending their voices to the effort to right this wrong, and the calls for justice are growing. Today, I look forward to attending the “The Moral Call for Ecological Justice in Buckingham” event in Buckingham, where former Vice President Al Gore, Rev. William Barber II and others will speak about the health threats and environmental damage that the pipeline and compressor station present.

"The Moral Call for Ecological Justice in Buckingham" Event

Photo by Montina Cole

Righting wrongs takes action, and all eyes are now on Virginia. The path to racial equity, including environmental justice, is paved with right actions. What path will you take during this Black History Month, Governor Northam? The path to racial equity in Buckingham County leads to Union Hill.

About the Authors

Montina Cole

Senior Attorney, Sustainable FERC Project, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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