Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.

Union Hill visit by Gore, Barber seeks to put Northam on spot

  • 0
Protest of compressor station

Nearly 100 people gathered at the Free Speech Monument on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall on Monday to celebrate Presidents Day with a protest of various issues, including the compressor station proposed for Buckingham County.

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam can’t escape the spotlight as former Vice President Al Gore and the Rev. William J. Barber II bring a racial and environmental crusade Tuesday to a little community in Buckingham County with a big natural gas pipeline planned at its doorstep.

Barber, a national civil rights leader from North Carolina, said Monday that Northam’s challenge is about more than overcoming a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page or his admission that he once blackened his face to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest.

It’s about changing public policy in Virginia, he said, beginning with state permits granted for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and a natural gas compressor station in Union Hill, a community founded by freed slaves after the Civil War.

“The governor has turned his back on this community,” Barber, former president of the North Carolina NAACP, said in an interview. “If he wants to do a reconciliation tour, he should first go to Union Hill.”

The message is the same from Gore, a Nobel laureate who has made the fight against fossil fuels and climate change the focus of his political work since narrowly losing the presidential election in 2000.

“It’s such a great opportunity for the governor to really show he means what he says and is re-examining the racial impacts of Virginia’s policies,” the former vice president said in an interview Monday.

Gore and Barber will appear together on Tuesday evening in a town hall in Buckingham that focuses on the 600-mile, $7.5 billion pipeline proposed by Dominion Energy and its partners. The pipeline would run from West Virginia through Virginia to southeastern North Carolina.

The battle in Buckingham isn’t the only hurdle the project faces. Federal energy regulators approved the pipeline 16 months ago, but the costs have soared, the construction schedule has slipped, and Wall Street confidence has waned as Dominion tries to recover from a series of legal setbacks in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Earlier this month, the Southern Environmental Law Center challenged the state air pollution permit for the compressor station in the Richmond-based appeals court. The court already has blocked or stayed a number of federal permits for the project, including one from the U.S. Forest Service that is critical to crossing through the Blue Ridge Mountains beneath the Appalachian Trail next to Wintergreen Resort in Nelson County.

In a written statement Monday, Northam said the state air pollution permit issued last month for the Buckingham compressor station “is the strongest of its kind in the country and ensures that air quality and public health will not be compromised.”

“However, it is clear community concerns remain and that Dominion/ACP’s outreach has thus far been lacking,” the governor said. “I hope that Dominion/ACP will listen and respond to the concerns of this important historic community and act as a good neighbor.”

Dominion, based in Richmond, said it has reached out to the Union Hill community by forming an advisory group that led to an agreement for the company to invest more than $5 million in a new community center and improvements to the county rescue squad.

“We have a profound respect for the Union Hill community, and we’ve worked very hard to earn their trust,” spokesman Karl Neddenian said Monday. “We share the community’s desire to preserve its historic resources, and we’ve taken meaningful steps to protect them.”

Northam recently created the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, replacing a gubernatorial advisory council that called during the summer for the state to revoke permits for the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, and suspend the permit process for the Buckingham compressor station. The governor never acted on the recommendations.

The governor’s office declined further comment on Northam’s decision in November to replace two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board less than a week after they publicly expressed concerns about the “disproportionate impact” of the compressor station on Union Hill.

His office said it was a routine exercise of a new governor’s appointment powers to replace Rebecca Rubin and Samuel Bleicher, whose terms had expired during the summer.

Gore said he has criticized Northam before for his decision to replace the board members.

“I just thought his action there was so grotesque, I felt I had to speak out,” Gore said.

He said the pipeline and compressor station would be a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas that Dominion recently committed to reducing by half in emissions from its natural gas operations over the next decade.

Gore, a director of the Climate Reality Project, contended the pipeline would boost greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent a year at the expense of monopoly ratepayers of Dominion Energy Virginia, the state’s largest electric utility.

“It is a world-class rip-off of Virginia energy ratepayers,” he said.

Barber and Gore did not call for the governor’s resignation or comment on the scandal that has enveloped him, which they said emerged long after they had made plans to visit Union Hill.

However, both men said Northam needs to take a stand on environmental justice issues as he seeks to remain in office and foster a public discussion of Virginia’s history of racism and its effect on public policy.

“The worst racism in some ways is systemic racism, policy racism,” said Barber, national co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and president of Repairers of the Breach, a nonprofit organization.

The photo on Northam’s yearbook page at Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1984 shows one person dressed in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. The governor initially apologized for appearing in the image. The next day, he said he was not either of the people in the photograph and never had seen it before because he left for Army medical school in Texas before the yearbook came out.

“Racism is not just ugly words and rudeness,” Barber said. “It’s about disproportionate impact.”

Pipeline opponents contend that the 54,000-horsepower compressor station would have a disproportionate impact on Union Hill, a community that includes two African-American churches and a history extending to an antebellum plantation on the project site.

“These issues are heightened when a community like Union Hill is the location,” said Greg Buppert, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing Friends of Buckingham.

The stakes also are higher for Northam as he tries to restore public confidence.

“He has a chance to lead,” Barber said, “and I hope he doesn’t blow the chance.”

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | RSS Feed | Omny Studio

Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | RSS Feed | Omny Studio

Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | RSS Feed | Omny Studio

Recommended for you

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.



Breaking News

Breaking Sports News

News Alert