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Virginia regulators balk at voting on pipeline permit affecting historic African American community

Pastor Paul M. Wilson stands outside Union Hill Baptist Church, one of the two churches where he preaches in Buckingham County, Va. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which has upset many Union Hill residents, is set to run near the church.
Pastor Paul M. Wilson stands outside Union Hill Baptist Church, one of the two churches where he preaches in Buckingham County, Va. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which has upset many Union Hill residents, is set to run near the church. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Virginia air pollution regulators on Friday unexpectedly delayed voting on a permit for a natural gas pumping facility in the historical African American community of Union Hill, after raising questions about how environmental justice issues were considered in the state’s review of the project.

The pumping station is a crucial component of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $6 billion project being built by a coalition of companies led by Dominion Energy. The 600-mile pipeline starts in West Virginia and travels through the heart of Virginia into North Carolina.

Members of the Union Hill community, many of whom are descendants of enslaved workers or free black families who settled there before the Civil War, have accused the builders of imposing the project on an area where many residents are older, low-income and minorities.

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Shortly before this week’s two-day meeting of the Air Pollution Control Board to consider the permit, Dominion unveiled a “community investment package” worth more than $5 million to provide a recreation center and other amenities for Union Hill. More than a dozen residents signed onto the deal, Dominion said.

But scores of residents showed up in Richmond to speak against the facility, joined by environmental advocates, packing a public hearing on Thursday and the session on Friday at which the board was scheduled to vote.

Several members of the board questioned staffers from the state Department of Environmental Quality, which had recommended approving the permit, about whether race and income in Union Hill had been taken into account. State law requires that such facilities not have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities.

Earlier this year, a governor-appointed advisory board on environmental justice urged Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to put a stop to this and another pipeline project until the concerns of residents could be addressed. Northam has said it’s up to regulators to make sure the projects follow the law.

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DEQ officials said that because they believed stringent air pollution controls would keep the station from emitting harmful levels of gases, they didn’t consider the surrounding community to be at risk — regardless of racial makeup or any other demographics.

“DEQ would’ve proposed the identical permit no matter where it was located,” Michael Dowd, the director of the agency’s Air Division, told the six Air Pollution Control Board members.

But several members questioned whether the state did enough to understand the makeup of the local community and the impact of the compressor station. After a lunch break, board member Ignacia Moreno moved that the vote be delayed a month to “give the board more time to consider information the board received from the public, the Department of Environmental Quality and Dominion Energy.”

The motion passed unanimously.

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“While we’re disappointed with the delay, we’re confident that after considering the full public record in support of this permit, the Board will approve it,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said in an emailed statement. Referring to the $5 million benefits package, Ruby added that “we have a profound respect for this community and its history, and we’re investing in their future.”

The compressor station is critical to the operation of the pipeline because it keeps the gas flowing. Two other such stations are already under construction — one near the source of the pipeline in West Virginia and another near the terminus in North Carolina.

The station planned for Union Hill is the only one in Virginia, and its location in Buckingham County is near the geographic center of the state.

Some residents said they were encouraged that the board had delayed the vote.

“I would hope that at long last this board is actually considering the things that we have to say, that they’re listening. I was very encouraged by some of the questions,” said Chad Oba, a local resident and organizer of the Friends of Buckingham activist group.

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The board said it will take up the vote at its next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 10. A second major natural gas project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, is already being built by a separate collection of companies in the far southwest portion of the state.