• Paige Thimmesch

Environmental Justice is Social Justice: Union Hill, Virginia

It was only a few days ago that the Supreme Court decided the LGBTQ+ community is protected from discrimination in the work place. As someone who identifies with the community, I had a little moment of joy knowing that finally we could be recognized by law as equals. I need to celebrate the little victories when I can, much like everyone else.

artwork by Christine Park

But then that moment of joy was abruptly stopped when my friend from high school posted on her story that, in the same session, the Supreme Court sided with Dominion Energy and partnering companies that’s constructing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline straight through the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.

I became furious; I was angry that this was a 7-2 decision with the seemingly “progressive” Ruth Bater Ginsberg siding in favor. The law that aids the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s construction, that will destroy 600 miles of land and people’s lives, is the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, which allows for public protected land to be exploited for energy resources (e.g. coal, petroleum, natural gas, etc.). I then realized something even more troubling that connected all my thoughts on the environment together: laws about the environment are written to destroy the environment at every turn, not protect it. And something even worse: these laws disproportionately affect BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities.

Living near a natural gas pipeline is hazardous as hundreds of miles of pipeline cannot be monitored for safety. Rural communities already ripped apart by the addition of a pipeline face natural gas leaks, explosions, and fires. The most recent fatal explosion killed one and injured five in Kentucky, causing a blast so large and hot that it showed up on weather radar. But pipeline projects require more than stretches of long pipes: they require compressor stations. Compressor stations keep natural gas flowing by producing a high pressure environment. During their cleaning, called a blowout, people located close to a compressor station report “incidents of odors and burning eyes, headaches and coughing.” In the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, three compression sites have been proposed in Jane Lew, West Virginia; Union Hill, Virginia; and Garysburg, North Carolina. Two out of the three towns are majority Black; all three are rural. Out of the three towns, Union Hill was able to stop the construction of the Virginia compressor station, saving their citizens’ health and town history.

Union Hill in Buckingham County, Virginia was settled and established by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. The land was handed down from generation to generation, keeping Union Hill a thriving rural Black community. But the community’s continuance was threatened by Dominion Energy, according to Chad Oba, Friends of Buckingham president—a group of Buckingham County citizens that are committed to protecting the county from the exploitation of the environment and people— and Union Hill resident. Oba said “when they told us that there was going to be a compressor station in Union Hill and there was nothing we could do about it.” The exhaust from the compressor would result in heavily polluted air, causing health problems for the residents living closest to it. Dominion Energy promised to pour money into local services essentially as an apology gift to those who would be harmed by the compressor: a proposed $5.1 million budget to build a new community center, improve emergency services, and ramp up businesses. For the people of Union Hill, it was either accept the bribe and poor health or fight for clean air and their heritage. For the people of Union Hill, it’s been a five year fight. And they won it.

Contrasted to the issues of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, mainstream environmental activism is predominantly geared towards upper-middle class white consumers in urban areas. Environmental promoters like Lauren Singer, who rose to fame by toting her zero trash lifestyle and founded the Package Free Shop, focus on consumerism to end many environmental problems. But as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline shows, buying eco-sustainable products simply isn’t enough. It’s corporations’ faults, from Dominion Energy to Zara, that target and exploit the land, air, water, and labor of communities, specifically those that contain BIPOC. There needs to be reform in how we as a country, or even a world, define and view what helpful environmentalism is. The “some is better than none” mentality doesn’t work with environmental racism because “some” still excludes so many.

Although it’s unclear where a new compressor station will go after Union Hill’s victory, at least a prideful, historical Black community will continue to thrive. It’s these little victories that keep me and so many other people going. It’s the wins like Union Hill’s that make fighting so hard for environmental justice so worth it.

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