Environmental injustice at heart of Union Hill gathering

An overflow crowd readies to hear about environmental justice issues with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from movement leader Rev. Dr. William Barber and climate activist Al Gore in Buckingham, Virginia. (© Charmayne Staloff/SELC)

Rev. Dr. William Barber, the president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the national Poor People’s Campaign, and former Vice President Al Gore visited Buckingham, Virginia this week to shine a light on the community surrounding a planned pipeline compressor station. Union Hill, where Dominion plans to build a compressor station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, is a predominantly African-American community founded by freedmen after emancipation and the Civil War. Descendants of the original founders of Union Hill live there to this day.

Speaking to a room of hundreds, Rev. Dr. Barber referred to the pipeline and compressor station developers and said, “What they’re doing is wrong legally, it’s wrong scientifically, and it’s wrong morally.”

Compressor stations control the pressure of natural gas flowing through a pipeline and, in the process, give off their own air pollution. In Union Hill, residents have objected to the air pollution permit issued by the state, which they say overlooked opportunities to cut pollution—measures necessary to avoid or reduce the disproportionate harm that the rural, historic, African-American community would otherwise bear. On February 8, SELC filed a suit on behalf of the local group Friends of Buckingham, challenging the permit on the grounds that the state’s review did not meet obligations to consider less polluting alternatives and the best available pollution controls for minimizing pollution from the compressor station.

Making matters worse, the pipeline isn’t needed to meet our energy needs. Energy demand has been relatively flat for years, and the existing natural gas pipeline network already has ample capacity to meet projected demand for natural gas. Former Vice President Gore characterized this project as a “colossal rip off” of ratepayers, one that would allow Dominion and Duke Energy shareholders to earn profits from this massive pipeline even if it is never used.

At Tuesday’s event SELC Senior Attorney David Neal shared the stage with these and other environmental, civil rights, and religious leaders and members of the Union Hill community. An expanded version of his remarks is below.


When we look at the proposed Buckingham Compressor Station, we have to see it as a link in the larger chain of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The largest and most powerful energy companies in our region have used their combined weight to try and push forward this 604-mile pipeline, one that would ship gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina, gas to generate electricity.

At the heart of the legal issues surrounding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are some basic questions:

  • How much will it cost?
  • Who profits?
  • Who pays?
  • Can we afford it?

The actual price tag?

We don’t know. The pipeline originally was estimated to cost $4.5 billion, but now is forecast to cost $7 to $7.8 billion. 

Before that kind of money can be spent on an interstate pipeline, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, must determine whether it is in the public interest. But it failed to do so here. Instead, FERC looked no further than contracts to purchase gas offered up by the pipeline developers. It is important to understand the underlying structure of these deals. The pipeline is owned by utility holding companies, primarily Dominion and Duke Energy. And the parties that have contracts for all of the gas are affiliated public utilities of those same energy companies. 

FERC decided that these self-dealing contracts were an adequate sign of public necessity.

Because of FERC’s allowance for a 15 percent rate of return, shareholders of Dominion and Duke can expect big profits from this deal.

But independent analyses have shown that there is no need for this massive, additional gas capacity and that building it would not be in the public interest.

Who pays?

You, me, anyone who receives electric service from Dominion or Duke Energy. If the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or ACP, is built, these monopoly utilities will seek cost-recovery from their captive ratepayers, including their rate of return. Too many of our neighbors already struggle to pay their electric bills and cannot afford the additional expense of the ACP.

Who pays for the pollution?

Most directly, the people of Union Hill. The company’s decision to put its polluting compressor station in the predominately African-American Union Hill furthers a shameful legacy of concentrating environmental harms in communities of color.

Ultimately, we all pay for the increased carbon pollution. In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that global net carbon pollution must fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by mid-century to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. We cannot meet this goal if we keep building new fossil fuel infrastructure like the ACP. 

The Buckingham Compressor Station alone would emit nearly 300,000 tons of carbon-equivalent pollution per year. This would negate about one-third of the Commonwealth’s planned carbon pollution emissions reductions, before we even account for the billions of cubic feet of gas that would be burned downstream from Union Hill.

Can we afford it?

We cannot afford to scar our landscapes, muddy our streams and rivers, or fragment our forests for this unnecessary pipeline. 

FERC abdicated its duty to ensure that all required environmental permits were properly vetted before rushing forward with its approval. FERC’s premature approval allowed the ACP to begin taking private land, cutting down trees, and burrowing under rivers even while essential permits were under judicial review. Communities like Union Hill, landowners, and utility customers are in harm’s way.

Seven federal permits required for construction and operation of the ACP have since been vacated, stayed, or suspended by a federal court or by the issuing agencies themselves. As a result, construction of the entire pipeline is halted indefinitely. Our office also has pending challenges to the Buckingham Compressor Station air pollution permit and the underlying FERC certificate in federal court.

What happens in Union Hill affects us all, and we cannot afford to let them stand alone. It is up to all of us to make sure that Dominion, Duke Energy, and their allies continue to hear our voices—we cannot afford this risky, expensive, and unnecessary project.

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