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Virginia Board Approves Compressor Station for Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Mallory Noe-Payne/Radio IQ

A state board in Virginia approved a controversial plan Tuesday to build a natural gas compressor station in a historic African-American community, prompting angry shouts of "shame" from more than 200 opponents.

The State Air Pollution Control Board voted on a key permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina.

The proposed site for the compressor station is in Union Hill, an unincorporated community founded by freed slaves. The community is located in Buckingham County, about an hour's drive west of Richmond.

Opponents are concerned that exhaust from the compressor station would hurt low-income and elderly residents who live nearby. Supporters say the station will boost development.

Paul Wilson, pastor of two Baptist churches near the proposed site, said opponents will keep fighting the project. He didn't elaborate on whether they would take legal action.

"We're looking at all of our avenues," he said after the vote. "It's a long way from over. I think Dominion wants to wear people down. But that's not going to happen."

Dominion Energy is the pipeline's lead developer. Atlantic Coast Pipeline spokesman Karl Neddenien acknowledged in a statement after the vote that it will "have to continue building trust in the community."

He said the project's backers are making investments in a new community center and rescue squad "but it will not end there."

Neddenien said most air emissions at the station will be 50 to 80 percent lower than any other compressor station in Virginia.

"We have a profound respect for this community and its history, and we will continue working together to build a better future," he said.

The air pollution permit has become a flashpoint in the yearslong fight over the 600-mile pipeline.

Supporters say it's needed to help boost the supply of natural gas. Opponents say it is an unnecessary fossil fuel infrastructure project that tramples land rights and hurts the environment.

Gov. Ralph Northam angered environmentalists, including some close supporters, and minority groups when he replaced two members of the pollution control board after it delayed a scheduled vote in November.

Northam, a Democrat, said the move was entirely unrelated to the compressor station vote and the members were replaced because their terms had expired.

The two new members did not vote Tuesday. A third member did not vote because of a conflict of interest. The vote to approve the permit was 4-0.

Board member William Ferguson said during the hearing that "there's a proven need for the pipeline," including in Virginia's Hampton Roads region.

"The region needs the energy; the state needs the energy," he said.

His comments prompted a woman to shout: "How much is Dominion paying you?"

Protesters had repeatedly turned their backs on the board. They also interrupted the meeting with shouts of "shame," hissing and coughing. They also overturned chairs after the permit was approved.

Some held pieces of paper with a blown-up photo of the governor's face and the words "foul" or "shut it down."

Northam has said he's agnostic on how the board votes.

"As far as the pipeline ... there's not a lot of middle road on that issue," Northam said in a recent radio interview. "I've tried to be as fair as I can."

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Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.