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Northam's blackface scandal unmasks another complaint: Environmental racism

"I think he'll leave a legacy that he didn't care," said one environmental justice activist.
Image: Protestors attend a mock funeral to symbolize what they call the death of the Democratic Party outside the Virginia State Capitol
Protesters outside of the Virginia State Capitol on Feb. 7, 2019, in Richmond, Va.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The racist photo on the medical school yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam repulsed Richard Walker, a black community activist in Richmond who campaigned and voted for him in 2017.

Walker wanted to believe in a governor whom he had knocked on doors for, and hoped would continue the work of other Democrats on issues such as criminal justice reform and helping minority communities.

But in actuality, he had already turned on Northam months before the picture came to light: The governor had played a role in allowing the approval of a natural gas compressor station in the historically black community of Union Hill, where Walker's great-grandfather purchased land as a freed slave in 1885.

"For him not taking a stand for a historical African-American community from the beginning, I truly believe it was racially motivated," said Walker, who still has property and relatives in Union Hill.

As Northam's job remains in jeopardy amid calls for his resignation over the past week, his critics say the scandal over the picture of people in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan robe underscores a broader failure of his to commit to fighting for environmental justice and stopping perceived environmental racism during his first year in office.

"I think he'll leave a legacy that he didn't care," said Queen Zakia Shabazz, an activist against child lead poisoning and coordinator of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative. "He might as well be one of those saying there's no climate change, there's no global warming. He might as well be one of those because that's what his actions have shown us."

Northam's office did not return a request for comment.

Northam, a former lieutenant governor, did earn the endorsement from several environmental groups when he ran for governor. The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club praised him for having a stronger environmental record than his Republican challenger and for his support for the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and protecting water in the state.

But while Northam continued a state Advisory Council on Environmental Justice established by his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, members of the council were at odds with the new administration.

Last August, the 15-member council sent a letter to Northam explaining its position on what was happening in Union Hill in rural Buckingham County, about 70 miles west of Richmond. Dominion Energy, the state's largest utility, proposed a compressor station for the Union Hill area that would be part of its 600-mile, multistate natural gas pipeline project known as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The pipeline has been criticized by environmental activists who are concerned about the health and climate risks involved, and believe it is disproportionately burdening small landowners, minorities and lower-income people.

In Union Hill, a separate study found that more than 80 percent of respondents living in a 1-mile radius of where the compressor station will be built identified as minorities and were predominantly black.

Dominion, however, disputed the findings. Citing census data and its own research, the utility company said that while 85 people live within a 1-mile radius of the site, more than 70 percent identified as white.

Dominion officials also contended that Buckingham County made the most sense for its compressor project because there was a large tract of land available and another natural gas pipeline to hook up with already exists there. The station can generate as much as $1 million in tax revenue a year, and the construction of it and the pipeline can create thousands of jobs, they added.

Regardless, the Advisory Council on Environmental Justice told Northam that putting a compressor station in Union Hill "may have a disproportionate impact on this predominantly African American community and could be perceived as exhibiting racism," and that he should place a moratorium on pipeline construction projects in the state.

But Mary Finley-Brook, a professor of geography and the environment at the University of Richmond who helped to spearhead the advisory council's creation, said members' suggestions were met with inaction.

Critics of Northam have noted how he and other politicians have benefited from Dominion, which is not only the largest corporate contributor in state politics, but its top executives and employees routinely donate significant sums to candidates in both parties, according to a 2017 Richmond Times-Dispatch report.

In a move that stoked outrage, Northam in November removed two members of the state Air Pollution Control Board, which was tasked with granting a crucial permit for the compressor station project in Union Hill. Those members' terms had expired in June.

At the time, Northam's spokeswoman said he was "exercising his statutory authority to appoint members of his choosing," although his decision came just after those two members raised public concerns about the project and only weeks before the board's final vote on the permit.

"Their terms were up, but so were multiple members of other boards and commissions where the governor had to appoint someone, and they were not replaced or reappointed," said Harrison Wallace, the Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, an environmental group. "It didn't make sense, other than he was trying to put his thumb on the scale."

Without the other members, the control board approved the Union Hill compressor project 4-0.

Dominion said in a statement that it has a "profound respect for this community and its history, and we will continue working together to build a better future."

While Harrison said Northam has made some strides on fighting carbon emissions, the way he has handled the pipeline dispute will be "another stain on his legacy."

Northam has stayed out of the public eye in recent days and remained quiet about how he plans to continue governing in office, as scandals involving Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring plunge the state into a deeper political crisis.

For residents of Union Hill, the fight against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline isn't over after the project's developers said it won't be in full service until 2021 because of delays, which have included multiple lawsuits.

The Southern Environmental Law Center on Friday filed a petition in a federal appeals court in Richmond challenging the compressor project's air permit.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Al Gore and the Rev. William J. Barber II are teaming up with their respective campaigns that bring attention to climate change and the poor, and plan to visit Union Hill later this month.

The Rev. Paul Wilson, a leader of two historically black churches in the community and an opponent of the compressor station, said it would be best for Northam to resign since he can no longer effectively lead.

"We want to stop these environmental injustices, not just in Union Hill but all communities," Wilson said. "But when you help facilitate environmental racism, then how can you be trusted? You must have moral conviction."