Social Justice and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Jun 26, 2018

Opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline have warned of possible harm to the environment and challenged Dominion’s right to take private property for this purpose.  Now, another group is coming forward with a different claim.

John and Ruby Laury fear the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will rob them of clean air, clean water and the quiet of their rural neirhborhood.

John Laury grew up on a farm in Buckingham County – in a small community founded by freed slaves.  He left Union Hill in 1964 to join the Air Force, then settled in Southern California, but he missed the seasons and the land in central Virginia.

“I liked the creek down below and the rolling hills, and it also has quite a few springs on the low ground," he recalls.  "The water is good.  There’s lots of shade. It was so green, unlike Southern California.”

So he bought about a hundred acres here, and in 1993 he and his wife Ruby moved back.  They built a small brick ranch house and a large garage, fenced the land for cattle and planted fruit trees. 

They were not happy when the neighbors set-up a shooting range, but now they have a bigger concern -- noise from a compressor station Dominion plans to build nearby and the prospect of water pollution.

“They want to build this pipeline 600 miles, tearing up God’s earth, under thousands of water streams.  How are you going to protect that to keep from polluting the water?” John Laury wonders.

Dominion is allowed to use pipes with thinner walls in this – a rural area. That worries Mike Ellerbrock, a professor of agriculture economics at Virginia Tech and a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice.

“Ninety-nine families live within one mile of the compressor station and one mile of the pipeline," he says, "and of those 99 families, 85% of them are African American."

He feels it's unfair that low-income people of color should be burdened by this project – subject to noise and air pollution likely to come from the compressor station.

“The one proposed here is giant – almost seven times larger than your normal gas compressor station," Ellerbrock says. "It has the potential to emit many tons of some rather chemicals each year.”

A neighboring minority group shares that fear.  Swami Dayananda sits on the board of Yogaville – a spiritual community of about 250 people and a center that draws 10,000 visitors a year.

Residents of Yogaville say air and noise pollution will ruin the peaceful experience they offer to about 10,000 visitors a year.
Credit Yogaville

“Obviously we practice yoga which includes the practice of breathing, and we really, really value clean air for our health," she says, adding that water quality could also be harmed.

"A quarter mile from our Light and Truth Universal Shrine, Dominion has proposed horizontal drilling, which is going under the James River, and certainly there is great, great concern for all of our members who have wells,” Dayananda explains.

She also fears  an unlikely but possible explosion at the compressor station.

“We are in the blast zone.  Our closest home is about seven hundred feet, and we do have a pre-school which will be about 12-hundred feet.”

The advisory council has written to Virginia’s Water Quality Board and to the director of Environmental Quality, pointing out that low income people can least afford to buy water or filtration systems in the event of contamination.  It urges the state to assess the possible environmental impact of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines at every place where they would cross a river, stream or wetland.

Next, they’ll communicate with the governor.  Some committee members and observers like Chad Oba, President of a group called Friends of Buckingham, doubt Ralph Northam will take their advice.

“He hasn’t done any of the things he said he would do," Oba laments. "He would come see us, he would have special focus groups to listen to our concerns. He’s said every single stream would be looked at very closely.  That’s not happened.  I’m hopeful, but I don’t have rose-colored glasses about this.”

But others, like Mike Ellerbrock and Swami Dayananda think the governor will listen.

“Yes, I do.  I think he will.  What makes you say that?  Well he’s a physician.  He cares about people and their health and their livelihood.  He’s a smart man.  I think he cares about statesmanship and citizenry and all, and that’s what this is about.”

“I believe that he will, because I believe he is a very caring human being. I believe he will open his heart and at least consider these recommendations.” 

Meanwhile, a group called the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League has filed a civil rights complaint against the Department of Environmental Quality, noting that any agency that receives federal funds may not discriminate based on race. Noting the DEQ failed to do an environmental justice analysis, the league says it can’t be sure that Atlantic Coast Pipeline won’t have a disproportionate impact on low-income people of color.  It’s asking the EPA to void a water permit that allows pipeline construction to continue. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.