It was a combination protest, spiritual revival and celebration as about 800 people packed the gym at a middle school in Buckingham County last night to hear from environmental activist Al Gore and political activist William Barber. They had come to oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and construction of a massive compressor station in the historic black community called Union Hill.
If Al Gore was the evening’s big star, the Reverend William Barber was quite a warm up act. He attacked Dominion – the company planning a massive compressor station in a poor, rural community founded by freed Virginia slaves, and said companies often refer to places like Union Hill as LULUs – short for Local Unwanted Land Use.
“Hazardous waste facilities, solid waste disposal sites, contaminated industrial sites and now pipelines and compressors. They are disproportionately placed in poor communities and black communities because they think they are LULUs," he shouted. "This ain’t no LULU. This is holy ground. This is where the slaves were buried who believed in freedom, and the ancestors are calling us.”
He said this kind of development was as sign of systemic racism, and he called on Virginia’s embattled governor – Ralph Northam – to take a stand against it.
"Governor Northam, if you want to be a great governor, the first thing you ought to do is stop by Union Hill, and tell Dominion, ‘I was wrong, but I’m going to do right now,” Barber thundered.
He lambasted other politicians for taking campaign money from Dominion and scoffed at the governor’s claim that this state’s air pollution permit was the strongest of its kind in the nation.
“First, when you say ‘strongest in the country’ is what;'s in the country is already weak, if you’ve got a deregulator in the White House deregulating everything, then saying what you just did was the strongest in the country is not saying anything, and secondly, Governor, if it’s so good, request it to be in your backyard,” he suggested.
The crowd cheered loudly.
Dominion says the compressor station will comply with EPA regulations and will pose no threat to public health. The company has offered Buckingham County $5 million for a new community center and to improve local emergency medical services, but Barber and his audience weren’t buying it.
“Union Hill shouldn’t have to get those things from Dominion," he argued. "The state of Virginia should be investing in this community centers and better rescue squads and schools. Union Hill shouldn’t have to sell its heritage for what is right.”
Dominion insists it will be a good neighbor – that it cares about the community around its proposed compressor site, but – again – Barber was skeptical.
“Dominion said it had reached out to the Union Hill community by forming an advisory group. ‘We have profound respect for this community.’ No you don’t! When you are putting something in my community that could kill my children, you don’t have respect for me. ‘We share the community’s desire to preserve its historic resources.’ No you don’t! ‘And we’ve taken meaningful steps to protect them.’ You’re taking meaningful steps to protect your bottom line, and it’s time you were called out for it.”
Former vice president and environmental crusader Al Gore was up next, and he immediately conceded Barber was a tough act to follow.
“But I’ll tell you a quick story that illustrates the feeling that I have. Michael Jordan, he’s my favorite of all time. One time he scored an unbelievable 95 points in one game, and one of the sports writers interviewed a rookie on Michael Jordan's team. He had scored one point in the same game, and he said, ‘What is your reaction to this game?’ He said, ‘I’ll always remember this as the time when Michael Jordan and I combined for 96 points.’ I want you all to know I’m going to always remember this as the time when the Reverend William Barber II and I combined to issue a moral call for ecological justice in Buckingham.”
In fact, Gore scored plenty of points with those who had braved a wintry weather forecast to be here.
“These compressors emit a lot of pollutants that cause a lot of conditions that threaten human health. This is what,” he began, before being interrupted by a deafening recording from an existing compressor station that lasted for 16 seconds.
“It goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Gore concluded.
Gore also warned that the pipelines would make climate change worse – adding greenhouse gases to the air while putting residents at risk on the ground.
"The emissions from both Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines would double emissions."
A map of the United States appeared on screens flanking the stage, and dozens of dots began to appear, representing explosions and fires involving pipelines and compressor stations since 1980.
He said growth in renewable forms of energy – solar and wind – decreased demand for new supplies of gas, making the Atlantic Coast pipeline unnecessary.
“These big utility companies don’t really make money by selling electricity or gas. The way they make money is by building new capacity and adding the cost into their rate base, and if the pipeline is not needed, they have a powerful economic profit incentive to build it anyway.”
Dominion has argued more low-priced gas would be a plus – causing less pollution than coal and sparking economic development, but opponents at the rally said the fastest growing jobs in the U.S. were solar panel installers.