A contributed Perspectives piece by Amelia Morrison
The latest news in the development plans for the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines proposed to cross through the Shenandoah Valley presents a daring challenge to our state’s conventional approach to pipeline projects. The Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, a citizen body of academics, legal professionals, and community organizers, has boldly urged Governor Northam to issue a complete halt to all pipeline projects in Virginia on the grounds of justice, safety, and due process.
If this recommendation sounds drastic, be assured that the Council’s stringency matches the danger presented to public health and cultural sovereignty by the two proposed fracked natural gas pipelines, whose routes would stretch across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains and to Virginia’s coast. The controversial use of eminent domain to obtain privately-owned land for the pipelines’ routes has violated both due processes meant to ensure safety and appropriate community consultation. Furthermore, the chosen sites for the projects’ most polluting and disruptive components, in particular one of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s compressor stations that generates pressure to push gas along the line, reflect long-standing patterns of environmental racism.
Property taking under eminent domain for the “public good” becomes questionable and troubling when done in the name of the very same energy development that contributes to the climate destabilization that will make our planet unlivable. It seems unlikely, too, that marginalized communities lacking adequate resources to mitigate environmental stressors will benefit from the construction of a highly polluting, unsolicited compressor station in localities. Yet plans for the ACP and MVP have so far successfully passed through regulatory processes with these concerns in mind. The compressor station sited for Union Hill, Buckingham County, a historical Freedmen African American community with deep generational roots, will emit thousands of tons of pollutants and carcinogens (methane, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, arsenic, benzene, carbon monoxide) each year. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has not undertaken required Section 106 Historic Preservation Act cultural resource reports for the slave cemeteries, historical churches and schools of the Freedmen community. Collectively, these negative effects are likely to diminish Union Hill quality of life and property values, rendering the long-preserved familial land valueless to pass down to future generations.
Cost-saving measures that reduce safety and quality send a message to residents in the path of the pipelines that rural lives matter less than urban lives. For example, MVP selected to not add the chemical odorant Mercaptan as an emergency alert to nearby citizens if a leak occurs, a common precaution in urban areas. Additionally, the planned width of the pipeline walls is thinner than what would be used if the pipes were located in urban areas. Alarmingly, monitoring of the ACP compressor station in Union Hill will occur remotely from West Virginia with on-site supervision only during week days for the first year. Control of the station with highly pressurized and toxic materials will occur by Wi-Fi tower transmission, in spite of the potential for disruption by storms and other hazards. Less risky fiber-optic cables are more reliable. With these cost-savings measures that do not employ existing technology, it seems inaccurate to define the compressor station as ‘using Best Available Technology’ as suggested by the owner and operator during permit applications. Rural populations may not benefit from the pipeline gas, so the absence of protections similar to those provided to urban residents seems unfair given the lack of benefits to balance the potential harms.
These concerns justify the Governor’s Council proposal to halt all construction on pipeline projects until safety and justice criteria are more adequately reviewed. The Council’s defense of environmental justice concerns is a refreshing display of integrity from our public sphere, and we will be expectantly waiting to see how Governor Northam interprets action for the public good.
~ Amelia Morrison lives in Harrisonburg and works at the Vine & Fig Sustainable Living Center
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