Virginia community rallies against pipeline’s compressor station

Many residents of Union Hill, a tiny community in Buckingham County founded by formerly enslaved people following the end of the Civil War, are fighting plans to put a compressor station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline nearby.

"We have one church with two locations,” said Pastor Paul Wilson. “Both are within a mile of the proposed compressor station."

Wilson, who has been helping rally community opposition, wasn’t sure what to think when the station was first proposed. 

I had no idea,” about compressor stations he said, so he set about educating himself. “There are three sides to every question: Their side, the opposing side, and the true side. There’s a lot of information out there. You have to sort the rumor from the fact. You have to do your own research.”

He talked with people who’ve lived near pipelines and compressor stations and researched the potential health impacts and other dangers. “With facilities of this type, there are always questions about the quality of the air and the quality of the water,” he said. “Everybody in this area depends on wells. There is no public water.”

Compressor stations keep the natural gas flowing through a pipeline at high pressure. They are loud, industrial facilities that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are highly polluting, especially during blow downs — procedures used to regulate the pressure of the pipeline.

According to a 2017 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility, “Air samples collected around compressor stations have shown elevated concentrations of many of the dangerous substances associated with fracked gas, including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and gaseous radon, among others.”

The report links those pollutants to a range of health effects for nearby residents, including skin rashes and respiratory, neurological, and gastrointestinal problems.

“Compressor stations are the most polluting part of pipeline infrastructure,” said SELC Senior Attorney David Neal. 

Many are questioning why the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s only compressor stations in Virginia and North Carolina ended up in the middle of two different predominantly African-American communities. The pipeline is being developed by a group of utilities led by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy.

There are definite concerns about environmental justice,” said Neal. “North Carolina regulators essentially ignored it, and Virginia regulators are so far saying it is not their role to evaluate these site-specific concerns.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission dismissed environmental justice concerns relating to the Buckingham County compressor station in large part because the agency ignored information about the actual people who live within a one-mile radius of the proposed industrial facility. FERC instead relied on data for three of the four U.S. Census tracts in Buckingham County. Taking this broad view brushes over characteristics of the local Union Hill community and only looks at the general, rural characteristics of the county as a whole.

Lakshmi Ford, a visiting scholar in the anthropology department at the University of Virginia, believes the Census tract data don’t paint an accurate picture of the area. She and a group of student volunteers have been surveying households around the station and have identified 158 people within a one-mile radius — 129 of whom are minorities.

Dominion will say they decided to put the facility here because of the topography of the land, the major highways and the proximity to another pipeline,” said Wilson. “But historically, they always put these types of facilities in depressed areas, minority areas, where people have less clout and less education. This has to change. Our area is just as important as those folks who have multimillion-dollar incomes. Our lifestyle is just as important.”

Wilson has come to believe that the pipeline serves no genuine economic purpose beyond enriching Dominion’s shareholders. “It’s all about money,” he said. “It’s about people making money off awful situations that the people they’re affecting don’t have any control over.”

Federal utility regulations assure that Dominion’s multi-billion-dollar investment in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will be allowed a 14 percent rate of return, which primarily goes to shareholder profits.

The ratepayer takes all the risk,” said Wilson. “The ratepayer pays for everything. This is not going to cause utility prices to go down.”

To get its permit from FERC, Dominion and Duke had to justify the need for the pipeline, but the contracts it submitted to show demand for gas from the pipeline largely came from companies at least partially owned by the giant utilities.

The families in Union Hill have mostly lived there for generations. Their ancestors are buried on the land near the compressor station and pipeline.

Berkeley Laury, a 74-year-old resident who lives a half-mile from the proposed compressor station, worries about the impact on his family and his neighbors. “It’s going to be loud and blow down anytime,” he said. “It’s bad for your health. The pipeline people, they’re not going to tell you. But I don’t think they would want nothing like that to come right through their property or yard or front door.”

Pastor Wilson worries that low-income residents in the area won’t have the resources to move if their quality of life deteriorates because of the compressor station.

They say just grin and bear it,” said Pastor Wilson. “They say when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. But lemonade isn’t always what you need. Sometimes you just need clean water.”

Weigh in as state officials consider the air permit for this compressor station and prepare for a public hearing in Buckingham County on Sept. 11.

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