RICHMOND — State regulators unexpectedly postponed action Wednesday on a permit for a gas compressor station in a historic African American community. And at the heart of the delay is a strange disagreement about identity.
The decision marked the second time members of the State Air Pollution Control Board have delayed action over questions about whether the project, being proposed by Dominion Energy as part of its Atlantic Coast natural-gas pipeline, amounts to environmental racism.
More than 100 protesters, many of them residents of the Union Hill community in Buckingham County, chanted and turned their backs on board members Wednesday for what they said was an attempt to impose a dangerous industrial facility on a community of color, including many elderly residents.
With two rows of Dominion executives sitting in reserved front-row seats, staffers from Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality told the board that there is no cause for concern.
They presented an analysis showing that the area around the proposed compressor is sparsely populated and has no greater concentration of minorities than the rest of the state. In addition, the staffers said, Union Hill has few historic resources of any significance.
So how can two depictions of the same community be so different? That question is part of the reason board members delayed their vote and called for an extended public comment period.
Lakshmi Fjord, a visiting scholar in anthropology at the University of Virginia, has spent more than two years analyzing the population around the proposed compressor site and chronicling its history. She said Dominion and the state are trying to downplay its significance.
“They actively have erased the key evidence,” she said.
Union Hill was settled after the Civil War by freedmen and emancipated slaves. Dominion bought the land for the compressor station from white descendants of a plantation owner.
Many of the records of the enslaved population were destroyed when Buckingham County’s courthouse was burned in 1869, in what Fjord said was an attempt, repeated throughout the South, to keep former slaves from being able to file lawsuits against their former owners. Fjord has been working with the state Department of Historic Resources to recognize the Union Hill area but said the lack of documentation has made it hard to complete the application.
On Wednesday, the DEQ said that failure was evidence that no historic resources are threatened by the compressor station.
Fjord also has worked with university students and Union Hill residents on a house-by-house study of the local population. She found 99 households within a 1.1-mile radius of the compressor site. Three-quarters of those households participated in the study, representing 199 residents. More than 83 percent of them were minorities.
By contrast, the DEQ presented a survey Wednesday that found a population density of about 27 people per square mile, with no more than 39 percent minorities. Michael Dowd, director of the DEQ’s air and renewable-energy division, said the department’s survey was based on census tract data.
Fjord argues that the census-based survey is too broad — that it uses countywide averages and does not look at the actual situation in the neighborhood of the site. When the board considered the issue in November, another DEQ staffer — Patrick Corbett of the air-permit office — cautioned against the census data.
“It’s a screening mechanism. It’s not — I wouldn’t really rely on it,” Corbett said in November.
The DEQ did not address that issue Wednesday. Instead, Dowd presented the survey to the board at length.
The board voted 3 to 1 to delay action on the permit so the public can submit written comments on the two competing demographic reports, both of which were updated or newly filed since the matter was first considered early last month.
A new vote has not been scheduled, though board members said they wanted to keep the delay to a minimum.
Opponents of the project were not sure what to make of the delay.
“Well, I’m surprised,” said Greg Buppert, a lawyer from the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). “We’ll have to evaluate the circumstances with regard to this new development.”
A spokesman for Dominion seemed to take it in stride. “While we’re disappointed with the additional delay, we’re confident the Board will approve the permit after considering all of the facts,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said via email.
The compressor station is a crucial component of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $7 billion project designed to carry natural gas obtained via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, along 600 miles from West Virginia through central Virginia and into North Carolina.
Dominion Energy is leading a consortium of companies in building the project, which has faced a string of setbacks in court challenges this year. Most recently, a panel of judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit last week rejected permits for the pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail and two national forests.
In recent days, a letter calling on the state to halt the compressor project over environmental-justice concerns has been signed by a host of national celebrities, including Karenna Gore, the Rev. William Barber II, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and actors Mark Ruffalo, Don Cheadle, Ed Asner, Danny Glover and Alyssa Milano.
The project has caused divisions in the Union Hill community, though, with Dominion offering a $5.1 million “community investment package” to help build support among residents. The package includes building a community center, buying an ambulance and improving local 911 lines, and some residents have come to support the deal as a way to benefit from the situation.
Even the approval process has drawn controversy. The state air board was supposed to vote on the permit in early November, but several of the six members had questions about whether state regulators had actually reviewed its impact on the community. (A seventh board member recused himself.)
Instead of voting, the board delayed the matter for a month. Then, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) removed two board members whose terms had expired but who had been allowed to continue participating. Northam replaced them with two new appointees, leading to charges even from some longtime allies that he was tampering with the approval process to get a favorable result for Dominion, a major political donor.
Northam responded by saying the two new appointees would not take part in the vote, leaving four members to resolve the issue. A spokeswoman for Northam said Wednesday that the governor does not expect the two new board members to participate in the compressor vote when it finally takes place.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has faced several setbacks over its complicated permitting process. The Fourth Circuit appeals panel said last week that the U.S. Forest Service had “abdicated its responsibility” by failing to consider alternative routes that would have avoided the forests.
The judges also ruled that the Forest Service has no authority to permit the pipeline to cross under the Appalachian Trail.
Federal judges have also found that permits regulating the project’s impact on endangered species were awarded without proper review. Work on the full length of the pipeline was halted earlier this month while that case is being resolved.