Building community to protect the environment and the people who are most impacted when it is degraded has never been more important. With growing threats to humanity and to the integrity of creation, new partnerships dedicated to environmental justice are essential. The new video, “We Won’t Back Down” is a portrait of the work of the Interfaith Alliance for Climate Justice (IACJ) to support those resisting the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley fracked gas pipelines.
Writing in the Washington Post on January 24, 2019, Sam Bleicher, a member and vice-chair of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board until removed by Northam in November 2018, discusses the January 8 approval by a diminished Air Board of the air pollution permit for the Buckingham Compressor Station.
He says, “the decision sets important, undesirable precedents for environmental justice decisions and for the global ‘business in liquidation’ approach of continuing to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure. To undermine the environmental justice opposition, Dominion committed $5 million for improved health and safety facilities in Union Hill that the community certainly needs — but only if the permit is approved. This deal divided the public opposition. The Dominion commitment presented the Air Board with a Hobson’s choice: The board could protect this disadvantaged minority community from the risks emanating from the compressor station, but only by depriving it of funds that will improve the lives of the residents. The existing statutes and regulations on environmental justice in siting energy facilities do not address the existence or relevance of such compensatory ‘incentives’ (some would say ‘bribes’).”
Bleicher believes that, “the outcome tells major corporations that they can buy their way out of environmental justice embarrassments by spending a tiny fraction of the total project cost to benefit the poor minority residents who are inconveniently located in their way.”
He describes the outdated policy of “bridge technology” (natural gas as the “bridge” from coal to sustainable, emission-free technologies), still egregiously embodied in government policy, including in Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) rules that guarantee a 14 percent return on capital invested in fossil fuel pipelines, no matter if they are never used. That outdated policy explains why Dominion wants to build a pipeline that makes no sense except to guarantee return to shareholders and management.
Bleicher concludes, “Unless we change the obsolete policies that incentivize construction of unnecessary fossil fuel infrastructure, communities like Union Hill remain at risk and electricity monopolies will continue to profit, despite the suffering of affected communities, and the costs of climate change inaction multiply.”
Read the full article here.
On January 23, 2019, the Virginia Mercury reported that Governor Northam is reconstituting an advisory council that he simply ignored in 2018. After multiple meetings to hear testimony and study the issues, the Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, originally appointed by former Governor McAuliffe, submitted their report to Northam in May 2018. The Council called for a stay on all further permits for the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines, and found evidence of of “disproportionate impacts for people of color and for low-income populations due to gas infrastructure expansion.”
Northam maintained the report was merely a draft. The Council, in late August, reiterated that their report and recommendations were final, and formally urged Northam to direct state agencies to suspend water and air quality permits for the ACP and MVP. He continued to ignore them.
Now, according to the Mercury article, “The former members of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice were invited to apply to serve on the new body, called the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, in an email from Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler. ‘I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to you and all members of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice for your service over the past year. I am pleased to report that the governor has acted on a key recommendation from your report to continue his commitment to environmental justice through the issuance of Executive Order 29 – establishing a new Virginia Council on Environmental Justice,’ Strickler wrote. The new council will ‘build on your work by recommending a long-term framework to guide environmental justice decision-making and ensure environmental justice concerns are integrated across state programs, policies, permits and procedures,’ Strickler said.
All well and good. But will the Governor pay any more attention to the Council this time around, especially if they recommend things he does not want to hear?
Read the full Virginia Mercury article here.
In a 4-0 vote, the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board voted on January 8, 2019, to approve the air permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s air compressor station in Union Hill. After being postponed from the November and then the December Board meetings, the vote was finally taken by a diminished Board. Northam had removed two Board members after the November meeting, refusing to seat their replacements until after the vote, and the seventh member of the Board had previously recused himself. According to the Washington Post, the vote was taken “under heavy pressure from Dominion Energy, whose executives occupied two reserved rows at the front of the meeting room.”
The Board apparently relied solely on Dominion’s promises of good air quality, DEQ’s promises to monitor emissions closely, and on Dominion’s census figures on minority residents of the area (census figures that even DEQ staff have said are inaccurate).
Board members Richard Langford and Ignacia Moreno agreed that siting the compressor station in Union Hill raised environmental justice issues. But Langford voted in favor of the permit because he said he believed emissions would be within the accepted limits so there would be no disproportionate effects. After speaking about environmental justice issues, Moreno voted in favor because she believes the state will closely monitor health impacts. Although Board member Nicole Rovner had asked difficult questions in previous meetings, she voted in favor of the permit without any further explanation or comment. Lastly, William Ferguson of Newport News did not address environmental justice or air quality issues, but argued in favor of the entire ACP because he believes the proposed spur to Hampton Roads will provide natural gas for economic development there.
On the eve of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board vote, the Washington Post reported on January 7, 2019, that both Rebecca Rubin and Samuel Bleicher “warn that regulators are preparing to vote on Dominion Energy’s plan to put a natural gas facility in a rural African American community based on inaccurate information from staff and from the utility.”
Rubin and Bleicher are the two Air Board members that Northam removed after the November 2018 meeting when the Board postponed its vote. Although neither has said how they would vote (if they could), both raised questions in that November meeting.
“‘The site is not a very desirable site from the point of view of either environmental justice or impact on the community,’ Bleicher said in an interview. ‘The record Dominion prepared was based on a not-very-serious look at the neighbors. … It’s a historic free-black community. There are churches and cemeteries and people who live there — none of which shows up in the analysis they presented.'”
The state Department of Environmental Quality and Dominion (which insists its data is unbiased) have said that the area around the proposed facility is predominantly white, but they used broad census data instead of an actual head count, and showed a sparsely populated area with a 37% minority concentration.
The Post reports, “Better data has come from an anthropologist affiliated with the University of Virginia who conducted door-to-door research in the area, Rubin said in a separate interview. Using the research by anthropologist Lakshmi Fjord, ‘you don’t have to extrapolate anything,’ Rubin said. ‘It’s very clear and excellent data … to quantitatively show that it is in fact a historically black community.’ The board should let that guide its vote, she said. ‘In order for environmental justice to mean something, it has to mean something when crucial decisions are being made,'”
In reviewing Ford’s data, gathered over a two-year period, Stephen Metts, a researcher on the adjunct faculty at the New School in New York who has gathered demographic data for several other pipelines, said “Union Hill is ‘by far the strongest’ case he has seen.” Studying aerial images and Ford’s data, “Metts found that Union Hill is ‘actually 51 percent more dense than any other location in the county. And those people just happen to be 83 percent minority.'”
Read the full Washington Post article here.
Read Rebecca Rubin’s opinion column, also in the January 7 Washington Post, Is Virginia interested in environmental justice? We’re about to find out.
Related article on methodology by demographic researcher Stephen Metts: 1-7-19 Medium. Dominion Energy & Environmental Racism: a case study in how to lie with maps. “Yes, the title is provocative, but its not entirely mine. I simply and liberally borrow from the classic Mark Monmonier primer entitled How to Lie with Maps. But the reality of this ‘case study’ is indeed provocative, and it amounts to nothing less than outright environmental racism under the direction of ‘one of the nation’s largest producers and transporters of energy’, Dominion Energy. In the following maps, charts and discussion, I detail the mechanisms behind Dominion Energy’s use of a ‘product’ from ESRI based in California; the ‘skills’ of one international environmental firm; ‘validated’ by an academic institution in Virginia and delivered to decision makers that may unwittingly (or not) participate in the statistical erasure of a local, historic, minority-majority community in Buckingham County, Virginia.”
The Air Pollution Control Board meeting to vote on the air pollution permit for the proposed Union Hill compressor station will be held on Tuesday January 8, 2019, beginning at 10 am, with registration and doors opening to the public at 9 am. The meeting will be held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Richmond-Midlothian, James River Parlor G/H, 1021 Koger Center Boulevard, Richmond, Virginia 23235.
In addition to the usual regulations forbidding signs on sticks, helium balloons, smoking, firearms, and disruptive behavior, the tentative meeting agenda includes this statement: “There will be no public comment opportunity at the meeting. Consideration of the draft permit is a case decision under the Board’s Policy for Public Comments at State Air Pollution Control Board meetings. Both the law and the Board’s policy provide for commenters to have an opportunity to respond to the summary of the prior public comment period presented to the Board. The opportunity to respond to the summary of the August 8, 2018, through September 21, 2018, public comment period was provided on November 8, 2018. For the December 21, 2018, through January 4, 2019, public comment period, the Department of Environmental Quality staff are not presenting a summary of the comments to the Board members. The public comments received during this comment period are being provided directly to the Board members for their consideration. Therefore, there is no opportunity for public comment at the meeting.”
DEQ instructions for sending comments on the air permit for the compressor station:
- by Postal Mail or Hand Delivery to Piedmont Regional Office, Re: Buckingham Compressor Station, 4949-A Cox Road, Glen Allen, VA 23060;
- by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; or
- by Fax at (804) 527-5106
These instructions have been copied directly from the DEQ Web page. But BE AWARE: People report that email sent to the email address published by DEQ bounces, so either the address is bad or their server is down. Yet another limitation on the abbreviated comment period.