The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former board members challenge state data ahead of key vote on pipeline facility

Protesters demonstrate last month against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and its compressor station proposed for the Union Hill community in Buckingham County. (Gregory S. Schneider/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Two former members of Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board warn that regulators are preparing to vote on Dominion Energy’s plan to put a natural gas facility in a rural African American community based on inaccurate information from staff and from the utility.

The comments come as the air board is set to consider Tuesday whether to grant a key permit for the natural gas compressor station, a part of Dominion’s $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

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Critics say Dominion’s choice of the Union Hill area in Buckingham County for a noisy and potentially toxic industrial facility would disproportionately affect minorities — something state law prohibits.

Both former members — Samuel Bleicher of Arlington and Rebecca Rubin of Fredericksburg — were removed from the board in November by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) just as they were poised to act on the issue. Neither has said how they would have voted.

“The site is not a very desirable site from the point of view of either environmental justice or impact on the community,” Bleicher said in an interview. “The record Dominion prepared was based on a not-very-serious look at the neighbors. . . . It’s a historic free-black community. There are churches and cemeteries and people who live there — none of which shows up in the analysis they presented.”

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The state Department of Environmental Quality and Dominion have said that the area around the proposed facility is predominantly white, but they used broad census data instead of an actual head count.

Better data has come from an anthropologist affiliated with the University of Virginia who conducted door-to-door research in the area, Rubin said in a separate interview.

Using the research by anthropologist Lakshmi Fjord, “you don’t have to extrapolate anything,” Rubin said. “It’s very clear and excellent data . . . to quantitatively show that it is in fact a historically black community.”

The board should let that guide its vote, she said. “In order for environmental justice to mean something, it has to mean something when crucial decisions are being made,” said Rubin, who published an op-ed online Monday in The Washington Post.

Fjord, a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia, spent more than two years gathering data from residents at their homes around the compressor station site, an area known as Union Hill. The community was settled shortly after the Civil War by free blacks and former slaves.

Stephen Metts, a researcher on the adjunct faculty at the New School in New York, said he has spent several years mapping demographic data for similar pipeline projects across the country, and Union Hill is “by far the strongest” case he has seen.

Dominion and Virginia’s DEQ relied on census data that showed a sparsely populated place with a minority concentration of less than 39 percent.

But using aerial images and Fjord’s data, Metts found that Union Hill is “actually 51 percent more dense than any other location in the county. And those people just happen to be 83 percent minority.”

Dominion contends that its own data is “the best available . . . because it is unbiased,” company spokesman Karl Neddenian said via email. He said Fjord’s data is flawed because it “included only certain households on select streets” to create “a false assessment of the racial demographics of the area.”

Neddenian also said that some of the aerial images used to analyze the population incorrectly labeled garages, barns and other unoccupied structures as homes.

“We have a profound respect for Union Hill and the nearby communities,” he said. “We’ve worked very hard for many months to . . . take concrete steps to address their concerns, as evidenced by the numerous investments we are making in the community.”

Dominion has pledged to spend $5.1 million on various improvements for the area, such as building a community center, buying an ambulance and beefing up 911 services.

The matter is up for a vote Tuesday after several delays. The board initially considered the permit in early November, but held off voting to learn more about the demographics. Before the board’s next meeting in early December, Northam removed the two members, leaving just four to consider this issue. Two new members have been appointed but Northam’s office said they will not vote.

The smaller board met again in December, but again delayed voting to give the public time to comment on demographic information submitted by Dominion and the state DEQ.

Northam has faced sharp criticism from environmental groups for his intervention in the process, even though he has rolled out proposed environmental legislation in other areas — such as coal ash disposal — that has drawn praise. He attended a fundraiser for his political action group with executives from Dominion on Friday night in Richmond, drawing a crowd of protesters outside.

“There is a perception on the part of some observers that the administration is kind of bipolar on environmental issues,” Rubin said. “It has done some good work . . . but this in some sense only strengthens the perception that its treatment of the [Atlantic Coast Pipeline] in general and the compressor station in particular is really out of alignment with its overall environmental stance.”

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Rubin and Bleicher are not the only former or current governor-appointed officials to sound alarms about the issue. Mary Finley-Brook, a geography professor at the University of Richmond appointed by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe to serve on the Governor’s Advisory Counsel on Environmental Justice, has filed a 14-page memo with the DEQ.

“I believe there are procedural injustices . . . which really speak to the issue of suitability,” Finley-Brook said in an interview.

Last summer, the full advisory board issued a harsh statement calling on Northam to intervene and put the brakes on the compressor station and on both major natural gas pipeline projects underway in the state. Northam’s administration then informed the board that its mandate under McAuliffe’s executive order had technically expired, and the status of the board is now unclear.

The other major natural gas pipeline in the state is the Mountain Valley Pipeline, being built across far Southwest Virginia by a consortium led by EQT Midstream Partners of Pittsburgh. That project is farther along in construction, and residents along its route have documented serious problems with erosion and runoff on the steep mountain slopes where it is being built.

The problems led state Attorney General Mark Herring (D) to announce last month that he was filing suit against the project. Roberta Kellam, a former member of the State Water Control Board who Northam removed from office at the same time that he replaced the two air board members, has recently met with environmental activists to praise them for standing up to report problems when the DEQ was not taking action.