A protester is removed from the Jan. 8 meeting of the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

January 25 at 4:06 PM

Vivian E. Thomson, a retired professor of environmental policy at the University of Virginia, was a member and vice chair of the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board and is the author of “Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.”

Misleading claims by state officials undermine the basis for the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board’s Jan. 8 decision to approve a permit for a natural gas compressor station in Union Hill, a Buckingham County community that is populated mainly by African Americans, many of whom are descended from slaves or freedmen. The compressor station is part of the planned and very controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, for which Dominion Energy is the lead partner.

At the Jan. 8 meeting, state Department of Environmental Quality staff asserted that because local air concentrations of fine particulate matter are now, and will continue to be, much better than in the rest of the state — “in the top 10 percent of clean air,” with only “marginal” changes caused by the compressor station — there can be no disproportionate impact.

I have seen no reports of deliberate discrimination on the part of the DEQ or Dominion Energy. Some might argue that, all other things being equal, it makes sense to situate new pollution sources away from population centers and where air quality is relatively less degraded.

But all things are not equal in this case. The implication that Union Hill’s air quality will not be harmed materially by the compressor station’s air pollution recalls an infamous 1991 World Bank memo signed by the group’s then-Chief Economist Lawrence Summers.

The memo said, “I’ve always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City.” After the memo came under heavy fire, Summers backpedaled, saying the memo was intended as a “sardonic counterpoint,” though he did not repudiate the memo’s microeconomic tenets.

In essence, Summers’s memo endorsed increasing pollution in countries that have suffered centuries of colonialism. Substitute “historically black community” for “countries” and “slavery, Jim Crow, lynching and structural racism” for “colonialism,” and one can begin to understand outraged reactions at the implication that Union Hill won’t be hurt by more pollution. The lack of intent to discriminate does not change entrenched patterns that continue to disadvantage African Americans.

Further, it is disingenuous to claim that Union Hill’s air is clean and that the compressor station’s pollution will add only marginally to current pollution levels.

It is true that the Environmental Protection Agency’s fine particulate standards are met at the closest monitors and that fine particulate matter levels in Virginia and elsewhere have fallen, thanks in part to the steep reductions in emissions from coal-fired power plants.

But researchers have not identified a safe threshold for exposure to fine particulate matter, which increases the risk of death at levels below the EPA’s standards.

Each additional microgram per cubic meter of air of fine particulate matter, measured as an annual average, causes an estimated 0.6 to 1.0 percent increase in mortalityDominion Energy’s modelingshows that the compressor station’s pollution could add 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate matter to local annual average levels of fine particulate matter. Buckingham County already shows a lower life expectancy than the statewide average.

Scientists have connected cardiovascular and respiratory diseasewith exposure to fine particulate matter concentrations similar to those estimated in Dominion’s air-quality modeling. African Americans are among the most vulnerable to the effects of fine particulate matter exposures. Buckingham County’s rates of hypertension exceed those in Virginia as a whole, according to the most recent (2009) data that are readily available.

Frustrations boiled over at the Jan. 8 meeting. Reports indicate that some audience members threw chairs, swore at board members and threatened a DEQ manager. Such behavior is insupportable, even if members of the public have lost confidence in DEQ. Disagreements over the board’s decision must now be channeled into the courts or the political arena.

The political buck stops with Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who in November abruptly ended the terms of two air board members who had questioned the compressor station permit, thereby sending an unmistakable message: Issue the permit. Northam’s pressure reflects patterns of influence I observed while I was a member and vice chair of the air board.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his fateful trip to Memphis in April 1968 to help sanitation workers, overwhelmingly African American, who were protesting intolerable job conditions. The day before his assassination, King gave the heart-stopping speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he exhorted his listeners to “make America what it ought to be.”

Until we vanquish race-based inequities, and until the DEQ’s leaders and our state politicians resist becoming servants of the state’s dominant energy interests, Virginia will not be what it ought to be.

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