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History, health at stake in Buckingham

Retiree John Laury has been researching cemeteries near his home in Union Hill, where slaves and their descendants were buried many years ago. It’s been difficult — some of the deceased are likely his forebears, and most graves are unmarked, long forgotten.

Cathryn McCue

His project has taken on a new urgency due to Dominion Energy’s plans to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through his community. The large-volume, 600-mile pipeline would carry fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina, and include a massive compressor station in Union Hill. Throughout the permitting process that began in 2014, both Dominion and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have essentially ignored the deep history of Union Hill, founded by freedmen and still predominantly African-American. This cultural “erasure,” as anthropologist Lakshmi Fjord describes it, is nothing short of racist.

Laury and Fjord were among those who spoke in late May to the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, formed last year to examine how certain segments of the population may be disproportionately impacted by pollution, and to make recommendations to address these environmental injustices. The council held its May meeting in Buckingham County specifically to hear from citizens concerned about the pipeline and compressor station.

Virginia Delegates Sam Rasoul and Mark Keam, who have staunchly opposed the projects (as well as the similar Mountain Valley Pipeline proposed by EQT), attended a gathering in Union Hill the day before and encouraged the citizens to keep fighting.

“It’s important that the entire commonwealth knows what is happening here,” Rasoul said. “To me, it’s just one injustice and lacks fairness on so many levels.”

Homes in Union Hill are mostly modest houses that in and of themselves, hold little historic significance. But they are occupied by descendants of slaves and freedmen, like Laury, who have been living in the community continually for generations. “It’s that continuity of history that’s important,” said Fjord. In 2016, Union Hill received a “Most Endangered Historic Place” listing by Preservation Virginia due to threats posed by the projects, and the community is now nominated for listing by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The community’s plight was also featured at the recent People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Environmental Justice Impacts of Fracked Gas Infrastructure, an independent, internationally recognized entity that presents evidence of human rights abuses around the world.

Fjord and others told the advisory council how Union Hill is being overlooked in the rush to build the pipeline and compressor station. Neither FERC nor the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality held a public hearing in the county, meaning few citizens could afford the time or expense to provide their comments in person. Dominion and FERC underreported the population density of the community, using a countywide average instead, so the pipeline can be built with thinner walls and fewer emergency shut-off valves. And although Federal Energy Regulatory Commission noted the compressor station would be in a census tract designated as a low-income, environmental justice population, it approved the project anyhow, and Dominion has made no plans to change locations.

On May 30, the advisory council adopted a draft statement calling for a moratorium on new gas infrastructure in Virginia and a stream-by-stream analysis of the impacts of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. The council expects to finalize its recommendations to Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration soon.

It can’t come soon enough for Chad Oba, another Union Hill resident who spoke to the council. She has worked in Buckingham County for 27 years as a mental health professional, and has seen growing levels of anxiety and stress among her neighbors since the projects were announced. The uncertainty and sense of loss of control is taking a clear toll, Oba said. “Our lives are really on the line here.”

CATHRYN MCCUE is communications director with Appalachian Voices in Charlottesville, a nonprofit working with communities across the region to stop the pipelines and promote clean, renewable energy. She can be reached via email at cat@appvoices.org.