Protesters turn their back as disputed Virginia gas project vote delayed again

The issue had garnered attention from activists and politicians, including former Vice President Al Gore, who had tweeted, "I support the Union Hill community."
Image: Pipeline opponents turn their backs on an air pollution panel as they delay a key vote on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Richmond, Virginia, on Dec. 19, 2018.
Pipeline opponents turn their backs on an air pollution panel as they delay a key vote on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Richmond, Virginia, on Dec. 19, 2018.Steve Helber / AP

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By Erik Ortiz

A highly anticipated vote that would allow one of Virginia's most powerful corporations to build a natural gas compressor station in a historically black community was punctuated Wednesday with shouts of "protect our children" and by opponents who silently turned their backs to officials.

The Air Pollution Control Board in Richmond ended up delaying the vote — the second time in as many months — to allow for the reopening of public comments on new information. It's unclear how long that period will last.

The move was considered a good sign by critics of Dominion Energy's proposed station in Union Hill — part of a 600-mile, multistate natural gas pipeline project known as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and one that environmental activists say will disproportionately burden minorities and lower-income communities.

"Today's delay shows the Air Board is seriously considering this troubled project's environmental injustices and potential health impacts for the people of Union Hill," Walton Shepherd, the Virginia policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said in a statement.

Residents of Union Hill, a rural community about 70 miles west of Richmond, have been divided over the project, with some calling Dominion's pledge to give $5.1 million to local residents once the pipeline is finished as a "buy out."

A representative from the state's Department of Environmental Quality reiterated Wednesday that previous reports showed no environmental justice issues with the project and lower environmental health risks when compared to the entire state. As he spoke, several members of the audience stood up in protest with their backs turned.

Aaron F. Ruby, a Dominion spokesman, said the company remains confident the control board will approve the permit, and that state regulators are recommending "the most stringent air permit with the strongest environmental protections of any compressor station in the country."

The company has previously said the station's proposed location in Union Hill, a community founded by freed slaves after the Civil War, was selected because another pipeline already crosses the area and the company was able to secure enough vacant land — 68 acres once home to a tobacco plantation.

Local demographers have sparred with Dominion over how many black residents live closest to the site and would be affected. Dominion has said the area is majority white, although demographers say the opposite is true after going door-to-door.

The control board had come under scrutiny after Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, removed two of its members last month who had previously questioned the compressor project and whether it violates the principles of environmental justice. Northam's office said those members' terms had already expired over the summer and had nothing to do with Dominion's desires.

In recent weeks, the issue has garnered attention from politicians, environmental activists and celebrities.

"I support the Union Hill community in VA fighting this dirty fossil fuel infrastructure & I support Environmental Justice," former Vice President Al Gore tweeted last week.