The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia regulators approve permit for pipeline compressor station

Protesters hold signs as they turn their backs on a meeting of the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board in Richmond on Jan. 8. The board unanimously approved a plan to build a gas compressor station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in an historically black community.
Protesters hold signs as they turn their backs on a meeting of the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board in Richmond on Jan. 8. The board unanimously approved a plan to build a gas compressor station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in an historically black community. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Virginia regulators on Tuesday approved a permit for a natural gas compressor station in the historic African American community of Union Hill in Buckingham County, angering opponents who vowed to keep fighting in protests and in court.

The state Air Pollution Control Board voted 4 to 0 on the basis of recommendation from staff of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and under heavy pressure from Dominion Energy, whose executives occupied two reserved rows at the front of the meeting room.

Dominion, Virginia’s most powerful utility, is leading a consortium of companies in building the $7 billion Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline, which needs the compressor station to keep the gas flowing across the state.

After the vote, hundreds of protesters who had packed the meeting erupted in angry chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as board members filed out a side door.

“The world is dying because of decisions of people like you!” one man screamed.

Others sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

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About two dozen state troopers were in place for security. Once presentations started, protesters quickly stood and turned their backs on officials making their case for the permit, holding aloft paper images of Gov. Ralph Northam’s face emblazoned with the words “Foul” and “Shut it Down.”

Opponents have called the decision to locate the compressor in Union Hill a matter of environmental racism, and in recent weeks prominent figures — including former vice president Al Gore and actor Don Cheadle — have signed on to letters urging the state to oppose it.

Dominion, the state’s biggest corporate political donor, offered residents in the rural area a $5.1 million package of community improvements to help build support. The unusual offer won over some but also sparked angry divisions over the fate of the Union Hill community, which was settled after the Civil War by free blacks and former slaves.

“Today’s unanimous approval is a significant step forward for this transformational project and the final state approval needed in Virginia,” Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien said in an email. “We know we have to continue building trust in the community. It will begin with the investments we’re making in a new community center and rescue squad, but it will not end there. We have a profound respect for this community and its history, and we will continue working together to build a better future.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would stretch 600 miles from West Virginia, across Virginia and into North Carolina.

Dominion has said it needs to site the compressor in Union Hill because it must hook into a separate existing natural gas pipeline that runs through the area. The spot also provides a certain amount of land and has a willing seller, a combination of circumstances that Dominion said was rare.

The air board has repeatedly delayed voting on the compressor permit since taking up the matter last November. Tuesday’s vote came after extensive disagreement over the demographic makeup of the area around the proposed site.

Dominion and DEQ presented survey data based on broad Census Bureau information that claimed the area was sparsely populated and no more than 39 percent minority.

An anthropologist affiliated with the University of Virginia, however, submitted the results of several years of door-to-door research showing that about 200 people live within a one-mile radius of the site and that 83 percent of them are minorities.

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The issue has been a political sore spot for Northam (D), drawing the ire of environmentalists who otherwise support his policies because he removed two members of the air board who were seen as opponents of the compressor station before they could vote. Northam has accepted extensive campaign donations from Dominion — as have politicians of both parties in Virginia — and attended a political fundraiser with Dominion executives just days before Tuesday’s meeting.

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As chairman Richard Langford began explaining why he would support the permit, several people began angrily shouting that they would stop the pipeline; Langford had police escort them out.

Langford and one other board member — Ignacia Moreno of McLean — agreed with critics that putting the facility in Union Hill raised the issue environmental justice.

But he said there would be no disproportionate harmful effect from the facility because emissions will be within accepted limits.

Moreno spoke more forcefully about the issue of environmental justice, asserting that the board has broad authority to consider such matters. She also thanked the two board members dismissed by Northam — both of whom had made public statements in The Washington Post casting doubt on the project’s suitability. But then she voted in favor of the permit without explanation, other than saying that the state would closely monitor health impacts.

Board member William Ferguson of Newport News argued in favor of not just the compressor station, but also the full Atlantic Coast Pipeline, saying that a spur extending into Hampton Roads would provide natural gas that region needs for economic development.

The fourth board member, Nicole Rovner of Richmond, had posed tough questions in previous public meetings but made no statement Tuesday before voting to approve.

Greg Buppert, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who has represented a number of advocacy groups, said he needed to review the case with his clients before deciding whether to challenge the air board’s decision in court.

He pointed out that work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is currently suspended because SELC lawyers have won several related cases in federal court. Last month a panel of federal judges vacated permits for the pipeline to cross two national forests and the Appalachian Trail, finding that federal agencies issued them hastily and without proper review.

“Even though Dominion got this permit here today,” Buppert said, “this project is still in serious trouble.”