They sang songs of resilience, held hands and promised to continue fighting for environmental justice.
That was the scene Tuesday night in a middle school gymnasium where more than 700 people gathered to hear former Vice President Al Gore and a prominent civil rights leader, the Rev. William Barber II, draw connections between poverty, racism, and ecological devastation in denouncing plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Gore and Barber said the construction of a compressor station for the ACP in Union Hill would severely harm residents of that predominantly African-American community founded by former slaves after the Civil War in Buckingham County, about 70 miles west of Richmond.
Dominion Energy says the compressor station is a necessary component of the natural gas pipeline, which would run 600 miles through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.
“Historic Union Hill is the wrong place to build the compressor station,” said Mary Finley-Brook, a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. In August, the advisory council wrote a 12-page letter to Gov. Ralph Northam, urging him to suspend the air quality permit for the compressor station. Industries that emit pollutants are required to get such permits to ensure that the emissions don’t harm humans or deteriorate clean air.
The council said the “potential future impacts are likely to be felt most severely by our poor, minority and marginalized communities and community members.”
At Tuesday’s rally, singer Yara Allen led the crowd in songs of justice in the gym of Buckingham County Middle School. Barber, a Protestant minister from North Carolina and a member of the national board of the NAACP, then delivered a passionate speech, calling the construction of the pipeline a moral wrongdoing that disproportionately targets poor minority communities.
“When God said, ‘Let them have dominion over the land,’ he was not talking about the company,” said Barber, drawing laughter from the audience.
Barber said there is a reason why these types of projects are not located in affluent communities.
“It’s systematic,” he said. “They target poor white folk in Appalachia, poor Native American communities — poor, poor, poor.”
Barber said more African-American political leaders should have been at the event, and he condemned Northam for supporting the pipeline.
“If the pipeline is so good, request it to be in your backyard,” Barber said.
Residents of Union Hill also spoke at the rally, saying the construction of the pipeline and compressor station would devastate land that is deeply valued and personal to them.
Richard Walker, CEO of Bridging the Gap in Virginia, an organization that helps people released from incarceration, said the compressor station would run through land that has been passed down through several generations of his family.
“Somebody is hurting my family, and I’m not going to allow it,” Walker said repeatedly, drawing applause from the audience. “I’m not going to allow Dominion to deny [my family] their inheritance.”
Residents said the properties in Union Hill are a fundamental economic resource.
“For most of us, our property is the most valuable thing we have in terms of dollars,” said Irene Leech of Mt. Rush Farm in Buckingham.
Leech, who raises cattle and teaches at Virginia Tech, said that landowners would have limited use of their property if the pipeline were built and that it would potentially tear through structures created by her grandfather.
The event drew to a close with a speech from Gore, who called the pipeline a “reckless, racist rip-off.”
Gore said he never saw a more vivid example of environmental racism.
“This pipeline should be canceled,” Gore said. “It is an environmental injustice, and it’s not too much to say environmental racism is located in this historically black community.”
Dominion and other companies involved in the ACP say that they are “good corporate citizens” and that they have “engaged extensively and meaningfully” over the past several years with resident of Buckingham County and Union Hill.
“Working together with the residents of Union Hill, we are committing to invest $5.1 million in a series of community revitalization and public safety initiatives, including the development of a new community center and outdoor recreation area,” the companies state on a website promoting the project.
The site says the benefits of the pipeline include “thousands of new jobs, lower energy costs, new industries and millions in new tax revenue for local governments — all while improving air quality and paving the way for more renewables.”
Many public officials support the ACP. Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, said the pipeline is “absolutely critical to the economic future of Hampton Roads and the environmental health of our entire region.”
Written by Maryum Elnasseh and Katja Timm, Capital News Service. Top Photo by Katja Timm.