Pipelines, Fake Racism and the Environmental Justice Hustle

Photo credit: The Interfaith Alliance for Climate Justice

A 15-member advisory council has recommended that the state rescind permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline on the grounds of environmental justice, the Washington Post reports.

The Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, created by former Governor Terry McAuliffe, said that Governor Ralph Northam should appoint an emergency task force “to ensure that predominately poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life-altering disruptions.”

Environmental justice advocates have focused in recent months on the community of Union Hill in Buckingham County, a historically African-American area where the ACP wants to build a compressor station. The compressor requires an state air-quality permit, the denial of which would put a serious crimp in the pipeline plans. African-American residents would be impacted by the noise and dust of construction as well as from air pollution emanating from the compressor station. A draft letter (I haven’t been able to find a copy of the final letter) from the group declares that the compressor station “exhibits racism.”

Friends, the environmental justice/social justice movement has jumped the shark. Pipeline foes raise serious issues about landowner rights (are property owners sufficiently compensated for rights of way?) and water quality (will erosion and sedimentation in mountainous karst terrain damage local water supplies?). But the environmental justice angle is hokum.  We live in an era in which labeling someone or something as “racist” trumps all other facts and logic. The anti-communist McCarthyism of the 1950s has revisited America a half-century later in a new guise. Today, social justice warriors espy racists behind every bush. But tarring the ACP as exhibiting “racism” deprives the term “racism” of any meaning.

Let’s consider a few facts about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The pipeline is 600 miles long. Architects of the pipeline route circumvented sites of historical or cultural significance (including those associated with African-Americans), as well as sites of ecological importance, including large tracts of land protected by conservation easements and national park status. Concerned about the impact on local economies and local tax bases, the ACP made efforts (not entirely successful) to minimize impact on sites with economic value. The unavoidable consequence was to steer the pipeline through properties with less economic value.

Steering a pipeline through areas with lower property values means redirecting it from affluent areas to lower-income areas. Insofar as there is overlap between the lower-income population and the African-American population, that means routing the pipeline through areas populated by African-Americans. ACP didn’t route its pipeline with an intention of discriminating against African-Americans, it reconfigured the route in response to pressure emanating from those with political power. If there is institutional racism in the picture, it’s the superior ability of affluent white pipeline foes to protect their property.

Despite this unintentional bias in the routing process, it is difficult to see a disproportionate impact on lower-income or African-American Virginians in the numbers.

According to the ACP Environmental Impact Statementin Virginia 11.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. Thirty-four of the 63 census tracts in Virginia within one mile of the pipeline have a higher percentage of the population living below the poverty line when compared to the state. Consider how elastic this definition is. The pipeline doesn’t have run through a lower-income census district, it can run within a mile of such a district! Furthermore, the methodology fails to adjust the “poverty” line for the lower cost of rural living. Thus the percentage of poor Virginians who are truly poor — and the putative impact on truly poor people — is significantly overstated.

Likewise, minorities in Virginia comprise 30.8% of the population, according to the ACP’s Environmental Impact Statement. The pipeline route goes through, or within one mile of, census tracts with minority populations ranging from o.2% to 100%. In 15 of the 63 census tracts, the minority population is either (1) greater than 50% or (2) is meaningfully greater than the percentage of the minority population in that particular jurisdiction. Nice trick: Create two definitions for describing disparate impact and rather than pick one or the other, use both!

Despite the way the process is loaded, it strikes me that you would have gotten much the same impact if you had plotted the pipeline route by random chance. In 48 census tracts, the disparate-impact criteria do not apply.

In a state in which the African-American population is scattered throughout the countryside, it is impossible using random selection criteria to avoid impacting some African American landowners and communities. As it happens, one cluster of the minority communities in the path of the pipeline is located in Buckingham County near a proposed compressor station, the location of which was picked not because of proximity to African-Americans but because of the availability of an industrial parcel in proximity to the anticipated junction with the Transco pipeline.

The social justice warriors are focusing on one African-American community along a 600-mile pipeline and using it as a stand-in for the entire African-American population along the route. Then the SJWs purport to speak for that community (some of whose members may not share their views), and insist that the alleged injustices visited upon that single community are grounds for scuttling the entire project. If this logic prevails, SJWs will be given the power to exercise veto power over major infrastructure projects — not just gas pipelines, but electric transmission lines, highways, or any major industrial project — on the basis of race.

Of course, as I have frequently pointed out in other contexts, the SJWs are highly selective in assigning racism. One could just as easily describe the SJWs as the racists. Pipeline construction will open up hundreds of jobs for African-Americans working for the Laborers International Union of America. By augmenting local supplies of gas, the pipeline also will make rural counties with large African-American populations eligible to recruit new categories of manufacturing business.

Dominion Energy and other ACP partners would be fully within their rights to accuse the predominantly white SJWs of trying to shut off economic opportunities for blacks to advance their anti-fossil fuel agenda — an accusation which has considerable validity. Dominion doesn’t play the game that way. But I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

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23 responses to “Pipelines, Fake Racism and the Environmental Justice Hustle

  1. You are missing the argument. That one community is the focus of attention, however, if you consider the entire route of the pipeline, it mostly goes through areas that are not the state’s most well resourced. A greater portion of communities along the route is low income, minority (African American and or American Indian), elderly than the averages for the affected states. The FEIS uses carefully selected data to hide the truth and was not corrected even though this was pointed out to FERC after the DEIS.

    In the case of Union Hill, the compressor station goes on land bought for a comparative lot of money from nonresident white descendants of former white plantation owners. Those living in the surrounding area are mostly African American and many are direct descendants of the freed slaves who worked that land and then bought it generations ago. They get nothing in terms of advantages from this project. They also get their residential community turned into an industrial zone with noise, air pollution, risk to water, and risk of explosion. They live in a rural area where the safety standards for such infrastructure is the lowest (thinnest pipe, most distantly spaced cut off valves so when explosions happen more gas must burn off, less frequent inspections…) The data used to justify the location were county level data that hide the actual population – which is higher than the county average. Their property value has already dropped and likely will keep dropping. Like most Americans, their property is their largest single asset. They do not get compensated for any of this and their way of life has already changed. Many no longer feel safe in their own homes.

    History has been brushed under the rug with minimal investigation as this project has been developed. Culture and local heritage is being ignored. There’s lots of lip service about careful consideration but those affected know that the consideration was actually minimal. These things are happening for all affected properties. Essentially, all along the path are sacrificed.

    For those affected, pieces like the one shared here are extremely discouraging. They reinforce the company message that nothing is wrong and hide the real truth of what is being done to people’s net worth and quality of life.

    I’d suggest that you visit Union Hill. Go to a Circle of Protection. See the community. Meet the affected people. Also, compare the properties and communities along the path of the pipeline with the averages for the state. This pipeline sacrifices those along it and is routed so that it mostly affects those who have less in terms of communities and individuals. Environmental racism is real and it is in full evidence if you look at the big picture and the data on who is really affected by this infrastructure and especially, the compressor station. This was absolutely the wrong choice of location for this infrastructure. It ensures that those who live in the immediate area will lose in every way and many of them are people who started with less and had to work harder due to the horrible things done and accepted in the past, including slavery. It’s real and it’s not a hustle.

  2. Please identify local workers who have gotten jobs and communities served by gas from the ACP.

    People in these communities are not getting jobs promised by the ACP. If they did, they’d only be temporary.

    No community crossed by this pipeline will be served by it – distribution systems do not exist and are too expensive to build so the gas will never be used locally.

    In Buckingham the Transco line has been in place for over 50 years. It has not brought jobs. No one in the county has access to gas.

    The community where the compressor station is located was not an industrial zone. It was zoned for agriculture and residential. A special use permit was required and received – against community desires. Now, people will ultimately lose their heritage and homes as the area becomes an industrial zone. There will be no way for these people to regain the environment and community they had before this was placed in their midst.

    The advantages touted for the ACP are fake for the affected people.

  3. Don’t know what the recent social justice warrior mantra is of late but it’s bogus… it’s like a new phrase was learned listening to FOX news…. and just can’t get it out of the lexicon…

    In the not too distant past – the way that highways and smokestacks were sited were in the lower income neighborhoods … and the EFFECT of it – was discriminatory -.. over and over and over – those things were sited where they would encounter the least “resistance”. No small irony that “NIMBY” often signifies “money” resistance..

    But I think this just goes to show Dominion’s attitude towards those that are impacted… they really don’t care if they can legally do what they want to do.

    It’s not like they could not have found places with less impacts AND/OR met with those impacted to see what might be acceptable mitigation… gawd knows they’ve spent many, many words on how the pipeline will “HELP” economic development – but apparently only in some places – not in places like Buckingham…. except for folks who already have money – not for folks who do not.

    Over and Over, it’s clear that Dominion was counting on the powers of Eminent Domain to get what they wanted without having to really negotiate with those impacted.

  4. Interesting showdown. Let me be poltically philosphical about this.

    After the last Virginia election, former US Rep. Tom Davis (Repub.-NoVA) said he could foresee (paraphrasing) Virgina Dems/liberals going so far left so fast, skipping beyond the New Jersye stage directly to the California extreme liberalism style. Davis was thinking that could be a threat to Va. Repubs. unless they get more centrist.

    But look at this new problem the Virginia Dems. have getting the McAullife/Northam nat gas pipeplines approved. McAuliffe empowered quite a loud voice to these new liberals. Is it possible the Va. Dems will self-destruct too, possibly even before the Nov. elections?

  5. I think the only way the Dems self-destruct in Va is if the GOP convinces voters in the urban areas that “liberals” are a “threat” but they don’t realize the GOP is talking about the voters who live and vote in the urbanized areas!

    Virtually all urban areas in the US have “liberal” voters – in on small part because the cities cannot “work” if configured the way Conservatives believe.

    As NoVa and Hampton and other urban areas in Virginia create more and more jobs and the rural areas get hollowed out more and more -the only thing that keeps the GOP alive in Va is the Constitution that requires equal rural representation, i.e. according to geography, not population. That’s what give them an edge in the House of Delegates and even then only because of Gerrymandering which the courts are now dismantling.

    Once that happens – Virginia and other states like NC will trend purple then blue as their urban areas expand and the rural areas wither.

    Which make the pipeline issue interesting – because the opposition is rural -not urban… and one would need to believe that it’s the “liberals” living in rural areas that are the actual opponents – egged on by those pesky urban liberals and those liberal enviros!

    Makes me wonder if the opposition to powerlines in NoVa and over the James was also those pesky “liberals” instead of the more mundane NIMBYs!

    The GOP has lost more and more of it’s basic principles and trades more and more on demonizing others … that they alienate..at the polls . over the longer run. You really can’t be an effective governing party if the way you get there is by dividing people and encouraging hate and invective towards those who are “not like you”. They keep blathering about “big tent” but their hearts and souls don’t work that way.

  6. Is there, like, no mirror in your house? Do you read all the blather in the emails from Democrats or listen to their talking heads on teevee and just nod in agreement? Your last paragraph describes both parties today, Larry.

  7. This presentation from Physicians for Social Responsibility (start at page 17 for compressor-specific stuff) helps lay out just how bad it is to live near a compressor station.
    https://www.psr.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/webinar-gas-infrastructure.pdf
    But to BR the real villains are … the people who don’t think poor African-Americans (or anyone!) should have to breathe in extra particulates?
    Major infrastructure jobs projections are always a joke. And I believe that Dominion itself admits that the permanent Virginia jobs will be — DRUMROLL PLEASE — 39. Thirty-nine. I bet a new grocery store adds more than that.
    Maybe the number would be higher if the need for more health care workers to treat respiratory/cardiovascular diseases were taken into account. But health care workers tend to move AWAY from depressed areas like these (because we have options), so those made ill will have to face their troubles on their own.

    • ebardwell, I don’t think anyone is a villain for thinking that people should not have to breathe in extra particulates. I just question whether or not it is a genuine racial justice issue when pipeline foes cherry pick one African-American community along a 600-mile pipeline.

      • There is only one community in Virginia targeted for an ACP compressor station at this time. One. Nobody cherry picked. The company had alternative possibilities for the location. If anyone cherry picked, or targeted, it was the company.

  8. VaConsumerAdvocate and/or ebardwell, perhaps you can help illuminate the debate by providing some background information.

    How many African-Americans reside in the Union Hill community?

    What is the radius of public health risk from the compressor station?

    How many African-Americans (and people of other races) live within that radius?

    I haven’t see any such analysis, but I’m sure it must exist.

    • Dr. Lakshmi Fjord has this info and I’ll try to get her to share it. The FEIS contains county level data so it is inaccurate. As for the radius, it varies with the type of risk. Noise and air pollution have different impact zones.

  9. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the demographic details of small Virginia towns. I’m sure the Advisory Council on Environmental Justice has that data for Union Hill, if you truly want it — maybe ask them?
    I DO know that questions like “What is the radius of public health risk?” are unanswerably simplistic, although often asked in good faith. To pick an example, PM2.5 travels hundreds of miles from its source. The smaller it is, the more dangerous it is AND the farther it travels. HOW much of it, and a bunch of other nasty things, comes out of the compressor station would depend on things like the station’s power.
    The very complexity of the issue is often used to dismiss it. People obfuscate by suggesting, in essence, “If you can’t state exactly how many ST-elevation myocardial infarctions would result within a 0.67 mile radius of this project, then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
    But we do. We know that these substances will come out of the station, that they are poisonous, and from epidemiology we know that people will get sick, and some will die, from exposure. Efforts to quantify the effect are often vigorously resisted by exactly the same people who like to claim that the effects aren’t real (e.g. the EPA’s current, astoundingly cynical “secret science” proposal.)
    One can absolutely make the argument that it’s worth it, that some number of asthma cases and strokes is worth the benefit from piping greenhouse gases around. But then MAKE THAT ARGUMENT.
    But please not an “evil libs try to keep poor people from benefiting from awesome pipeline jobs” argument, because that’s not what’s going on. And if we’re throwing around questions, 1) How could you prove that Union Hill residents would secure ANY of the 39 permanent jobs from the pipeline? 2) How could you prove that piping natural gas through their community, quite probably for export, will lead to industry returning to areas that it’s been fleeing for decades?
    It’s hard to see how the pipeline could possibly, let alone certainly, help this town, especially in the long run with dirtier air and probably no extra jobs.

  10. Re: NIMBY
    I make another observation: When we ask the opponents, “Why are all the pipelines are being opposed (Keystone, etc)” the answer we get it is a symbolic knee-jerk hate response to further use of fossil fuels, even if the pipeline is safer than alternatives, and even if the fossil fuels that would be transmitted in the pipeline will be used anyway. Basically an “all or nothing” approach trying as hard as possible to kill the project on grounds that American liberals reject that any future use of fossil fuels in the USA is justified.

    Meanwhile, now we get down to the “rubber meeting the road” stage, and it turns out there could be shortcomings with the engineering and construction plans. But because the oppostion focus was so much on just killing the project, the idea of improving the project was rejected out of hand. Now here we are.

    Just between you and me and the lamp post, there seems to be a lot of similar complaints re: I495 Hot Lanes construction etc. Not accounting for runoff etc.

    • TBill,

      The main reason to oppose these projects is that we don’t need them and they will increase our energy costs.

      This is not a liberal or conservative issue in my mind. We should all be concerned about wasting money on unnecessary projects that also harm our land, waters and communities.

      In the last 20 years, we added twice the pipeline capacity that we needed for our maximum national use last year. This was on top of all of the pipelines we built in the 20th century.

      At some point, making profits for a few companies at the expense of the rest of us should be halted. There is a reason that the federal law requires that a new pipeline serve the public convenience and necessity. When our government agencies fail to uphold the law we need to call them on it.

  11. I have come across a letter from the Virginia Advisory Council on Environmental Justice to Governor Northam, dated April 19, 2018.

    Apparently, no analysis exists along the lines of what I suggested above. Indeed, the Council calls upon the Northam administration to perform such analysis.

    “The DEQ should complete a robust proximity and cumulative impact analysis to determine the environment and health impacts of co-pollutant emissions and pollution from sectors not subject to the carbon cap for EJ communities. …

    If pollution hotspots are found as the DEQ examines results from its analysis, the ACEJ would urge the DEQ to create a concrete remediation plan for environmentally stressed communities identified in the analysis in order to reduce environmental hazards and otherwise lower pollution in those communities. The DEQ should solicit the input of community members and other interested stakeholders for corrective remediation of past practices.”

    So… any claims regarding the environmental impact of the compressor, either pro or con, have yet to be evaluated.

    • There is a need to conduct very specific base conditions research that can be used throughout the life of the infrastructure to compare what happens with what was. That is what the letter is about.

      Residents have been bluntly told that our air is so clean we can afford the pollution. We are told to trust that. It’s not surprising that nobody does. The message that we are considered expendable has been made repeatedly.

  12. In your reaction to the “racist” tag, I think you gloss over some important issues related to the ACP and energy projects in general.

    As you noted, energy infrastructure is often located in less affluent and less densely populated areas. This reduces the cost of land acquisition and minimizes the strength of the opposition.

    Energy projects are often located where the project developer thinks the population will be easier to deal with for purchasing easements and less able to oppose the project through legal and other means.

    A person I knew in the utility business called it his “circular driveway” theory of site selection. He said we should avoid areas with circular driveways (indicating higher value properties) to avoid higher real estate costs and people who might hire lawyers to oppose the project.

    This appears to be the case with the ACP. It is not obvious that this was the case, based on information in the draft and final environmental impact statements. A proper tally was not done of the minority and low-income populations that were affected by the pipeline. Not only is the Union Hill neighborhood especially affected, but lands of numerous Native American tribes in Virginia and North Carolina are affected in far higher numbers than their share of the population.

    This was pointed out in many comments, but it was never remedied in the FERC documents. Proper accounting of these issues would have made the disproportionate impact quite apparent.

    Consideration of historical sites was also notably missing. Many people approached Dominion and FERC to identify locations of areas of historical and cultural significance to their communities. But this information was ignored in the evaluation.

    You say that the ACP circumvented large tracts of conservation easements, but this was not the case. Eleven different easements, most with unique and heavily forested habitats, were exchanged for Hayfields Farm offered by Dominion along with $4 million in funding. Although the acreage of the farm is larger than the amount of acreage of the affected right-of-way, the total acreage of the properties whose nature will be fundamentally altered by pipeline construction is far larger. The Virginia Outdoors Foundation opposed the pipeline in these areas that were intended to be conserved. But they took the best deal they could get with the threat of eminent domain over their head.

    You note that the Union Hill neighborhood was not targeted by the ACP. However, there was a potential compressor site in another County that also allowed easy connection with the Transco system. This site was already zoned industrial and did not require a conversion as did the Union Hill site. Dominion said they were a utility in the zoning hearing because that was the only way they qualified for a special use permit. Yet, they said they were not a utility in their application for the air quality permit, because that would have exposed them to more stringent requirements.

    I have commented before about how this pipeline will raise our energy costs. Energy costs comprise a much higher percentage of total income for low-income families. Not only will the Union Hill community suffer the effects of the compressor station, most are seeing a significant property value decline without any compensation because they are not on the right-of-way.

    Dominion is using its contacts in the area to offer money to reduce the opposition.

    All of this was supposed to be considered in FERC’s consideration of public convenience. But they made no such evaluation, relying entirely on the faulty claims of the applicants.

    All citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity or creed, deserve fair treatment. I am concerned that you used Dominion’s talking points to diminish legitimate concerns, just the way the ACP did.

  13. In (brief) reply to Mr. Bacon, no reasonable person would deny that compressor stations release air pollution, and specifically air pollution that is directly dangerous to human health (please see the PSR link I posted above if interested in details). The only question is how much and exactly how dangerous (that second question probably not even addressable within the current state of science, except to say, “Plenty dangerous.”)

  14. Complete Nonsense.

  15. Buckingham County, Va has a population density of 29 people per square mile. Dominion couldn’t find some place in the middle of nowhere for the compressor? I’ve read that there are 159 people living within one mile of the gas compressor. Assuming my geometry skills remain intact a circle with a radius of 1 mile has an area of 3.14 sq miles. 3.14 * 29 = 91. So, Dominion has managed to locate this gas generator in an area considerably more densely populated that Buckingham County overall. Why?

    Screw Dominion and screw the butt kissing Virginia politicians who line up to stuff their pockets with Dominion dollars. Dominion needs to find a new, more remote position for this gas compressor.

  16. Wonderful analysis, Don. You’re still at the very top of your game.

    Before I wrote the words “Complete Nonsense,” I thought perhaps, Dominion was looking to put the facility near a small employment center in otherwise near wilderness. So I goggled:

    Union Hill, Buckingham County Virginia –

    I listened to two very recent propaganda videos put out by the usual suspects. Still I saw no population center in or near Union Hill.

    So I went to Wikipedia – here is the total of what I found out about Union Hill, every word of what Wikipedia had to say about Union Hill:

    “Union Hill is an unincorporated community in Buckingham County, in the U.S. state of Virginia.”

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Hill,_Buckingham_County,_Virginia

    Next I looked at Union Hill on a Google Earth map. All I could discern was five rural buildings, each on a their own large rural plot of ground, say roughly four acres each, one presumably a church, given video.

    I suspect the site of the compressor is within a mile of these five rural buildings on which, according to some, the fate of 600 mile gas pipeline said to generate $2.7 billion in total economic activity and an average of $4.2 million in annual tax revenue for cities and counties within the project area, now depends.

    Question, have we lost our perspective here? Are we now as a society certifiably insane?

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