Lakshmi Fjord recounts the pivotal role environmental justice played in the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline
Learning how to fight environmental injustice through legal evidence became Friends of Buckingham’s specialty and major work leading to the termination of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) in July, 2020. Our contribution to the enforcement of environmental justice (EJ) regulations in existing Virginia and federal laws was by community participatory research to uncover deliberately erased historic and demographic household evidence for the site chosen for the ACP’s only mega-compressor station (CS) in Union Hill, Virginia, an historic predominantly Black community.
At the helm was long-time practicing anthropologist and Integral Yoga minister, Rev. Lakshmi Fjord, PhD. Lakshmi focuses her ministry and anthropology practices on elevating the cultural expertise of Black and Indigenous communities within community-guided research, as direct actions to protect our air, land, water and all beings of Mother Earth.
The following article is excerpted from an interview
with Lakshmi Fjord in May 2023.
The ACP was stopped by losing all 8 required permits in legal challenges based on site-specific research evidence submitted by frontline communities, citizen scientists, and independent scientists in public comments to counter applicant-generated misinformation and false data. Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and Appalachian Mountain Advocates (APPLMAD) provided the pro bono legal expertise to challenge these permits using our collective peer-replicable scientific evidence.
The ACP and MVP (Mountain Valley Pipeline) were approved 2:1 by FERC in the same evening session on October 13, 2017. With routes drawn as parallel lines through the Appalachian Mountains across topography not industry standard for 42″ pipelines — from fracking well-sites in West Virginia, to transect Virginia, and for the ACP to continue into North Carolina. Early on, thinking Dominion Energy too powerful to stop, Virginia residents in upstream counties looked for ways to “minimize impacts” by suggesting the two be moved into one corridor. Yet keeping ACP’s route to the only Virginia compressor station (CS) in Buckingham to achieve Dominion’s plan for the ACP to intersect with the existing Transco Pipeline that would feed gas to Dominion’s proposed LNG (liquefied natural gas) facility in Cove’s Point, MD.
Throughout the “drawing board” and pre-permit stages, the first defenses used by impacted communities were to provide site-based evidence of elevation and karst hazards or to exert local political clout to move routing or siting decisions. Site-based evidence moved ACP’s route from Highland to Bath County; political clout moved the ACP compressor station site in Buckingham from a White to a Black majority location nearby. At the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance (ABRA) meeting, when the shared MVP/ACP corridor idea was proposed, Lakshmi counter-proposed that focusing on stopping the only Virginia CS and its intersection with Transco in Buckingham – would stop the entire ACP pipeline.
Neither strategy was chosen as a principal focus of the Alliance. Instead, the strategy would be for independent citizen scientists and frontline residents to uncover factual data to counter misinformation in every permit.
ABRA formed first as a collaboration between “upstream” ACP-impacted Virginia counties (yet early included Buckingham), becoming a key force for citizen science as it grew to have representatives from West Virginia on its Board. After tree-clearing began, ABRA pioneered the Conservation Surveillance Initiative (CSI), to document ACP’s Virginia pipeline route land clearing using plane flyover and onsite photography and first person testimony as evidence used to overturn permits.
Jeeva Abbate represented Yogaville Environmental Solutions (YES) and the site of the proposed horizontal drilled crossing under the James River, Buckingham. Later, Lakshmi and Chad Oba joined the ABRA Board to represent Friends of Buckingham (FoB) and Buckingham pipeline landowners and the Buckingham CS site.
The ACP’s planned 600+ mile route called for 3 mega-sized CS, one for each state – again, against industry safety standards, which for safety reasons were typically to build single turbine stations every 60+ miles apart. By locating all 3 proposed ACP mega-CS in majority EJ communities (Historic Appalachian, Indigenous and historic Black communities), Dominion Energy followed a pervasive industry pattern of siting the most toxic polluting infrastructure in places of historic discrimination, thinking resistance would be the least powerful.
Closely analyzing ACP’s 2015 FERC application, Lakshmi found only one historic cultural resource on ACP’s entire Buckingham County pipeline trajectory (for Yogaville, the site of the proposed ACP horizontal drilling under the James River) submitted under the Historic Preservation Act, Section 106. Zero resources were listed for the site of the Virginia CS on former plantation lands. This void contrasted with all other ACP-impacted Virginia counties, where extensive historic resources were “to be avoided.” No other ACP pipeline county would be burdened by the trifecta of dangerous infrastructure at one site: the largest CS of the three, intersecting underground with the 3-pipeline Transco corridor, and a metering and regulatory station. All of this was sited for a place that Dominion claimed was sparsely populated and White, which a short drive of surrounding roads reveals it to be both populous and majority Black.
Hoping Section 106 would prove protective, her first strategy was to fill these gaps in state archived historic resources caused by historic preservationists’ beliefs that rural historic Black cultural resources had no “architectural “significance.” Plantation-related Black history was erased in the County when arsonists burnt Buckingham Courthouse to the ground to destroy the records of enslavement on February 26, 1868. That night the 15th amendment passed, calling for federal troops to enforce the voting rights of Buckingham’s male majority of formerly enslaved men, whom former plantation owners feared would vote for reparations.
Fortunately, local Black historian, Charles White, had spent 45 years researching Buckingham’s Black history of the formerly enslaved people and their descendants living in Buckingham. His records on Black families could be overlaid on residents in the CS impact zone. Lakshmi used archives research at the University of Virginia in the Variety Shade Plantation family records (owners of the land sold to Dominion for the CS), and interviews with key historic Black family members to document the existence of the “Union Hill Rural Historic District”, including the proposed CS land. Named after Union Hill Baptist Church built by Free Blacks in 1868, this district received “Most Endangered Historic Place” designation from Preservation Virginia in May 2016. And, in 2020 using the full ethnographic study of Union Hill’s history, became the first Free Black built rural historic district in Virginia to receive eligibility for Virginia and US Landmark register status.
ACP’s 2015 FERC application had also erased the existence of the dense cluster of homes and 2 churches closely surrounding ACP’s “preferred CS site” on all sides. FERC’s ACP “scoping phase” erased Buckingham County as part of the ACP route.
To counter these systemic erasures by factual demographic, family heritage, and pre-existing health conditions in all CS site permits, in August, 2016, Lakshmi organized a 1+ mile radius door-to-door household study. This was workshopped with courageous frontline Black elders to ensure robust statistical outcomes where speaking out against white political interests and racism caused direct retaliation. The methods found an 84% African American majority (many also identifying as Indigenous), many with pre-existing health conditions that proposed levels of pollution would greatly exacerbate. A majority were/are descendants of Union Hill’s Free Black founders and kin to each other.
The household study project was community-building during a key phase of our history, bringing together team leaders from different impacted communities, with our scribes from Virginia Student Environmental Coalition (VSEC) in partnership with Union Hill elders. The state archival and legal acknowledgement of their history and cultural resources, and our findings, became a source of Black community pride. This history and demographic facts became the basis for public comments by environmental legal teams, partner groups, and the impacted residents at the Buckingham CS permit hearing and thereafter.
Nonetheless, on January 5, 2017, the Buckingham Board of Supervisors (BoS) approved a special use permit, a zoning exemption, for this designated A1 Agriculture Zone to be the site of the largest fracked gas CS in the U.S. according to former VP Al Gore in 2019. The BoS never deviated from their original July 14, 2014 statement that “Richmond wanted it” (i.e. Governor Terry McAuliffe and Dominion). At the hearing, the BoS, misinformed by Dominion’s statements “that it was already in the ground” and “could only be stopped by federal agencies,” stated they had no authority to deny it.
Appalachian Mountain Advocates (APPALMAD) tried to convince local Black residents to challenge that permit, but only succeeded with a White dairy farmer in moving the ACP route from his farm. This underscores how a culture of silencing and retaliation against Black residents still maintained its hold. A turning point for the Black community’s trust and optimism occurred in March 2017, after Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) hired attorney David Neal, environmental justice (EJ) legal expert, and agreed to represent Union Hill. Using the Union Hill Study community data to prove environmental [in]justice for this site choice, SELC first provided legal expertise in their FERC Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) public comments.
The white supremacist violence Lakshmi witnessed in Charlottesville at the Unite the Right Rally on August 11-12, 2017, inspired her to organize the Charlottesville People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Environmental Justice Impacts of Fracking: ACP and MVP, on October 28, 2017, to document evidence of the slow violence experienced by frontline EJ communities fighting both pipelines. For the first time frontline people and citizen scientists from all states and counties of both ACP and MVP routes were brought together in a safe space, to listen to each others’ testimonies of specific harms. And, plan together Next Steps to collaborate to stop each permit for both pipelines.
Two days later, Governor McAuliffe launched the Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (ACEJ) by executive order. Pastor Paul, Chad Oba, Swami Dayananda, and other Union Hill frontline residents spoke during public comments at the first ACEJ meeting. The ACEJ collective response was, “Why have we never heard about Union Hill?” To remedy this media void, ACEJ held its next meeting in Buckingham Courthouse to hear from both Dominion and impacted residents. This began lasting connections with key ACEJ members: Faith Harris, Virginia Interfaith Power and Light (VAIPL); Beth Roach, Nottoway Tribe, currently with Sierra Club; Professor Mary Finley-Brook, University of Richmond; and, Hope Cupit, Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, Inc. (SERCAP). After the ACP was canceled, Hope served courageously on the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board that denied the MVP Southgate air permit in a majority EJ community in December 2021.
During a long public permit and hearings process for the ACP’s CS air permit in Union Hill, in which “conflicting demographics” played a huge role, the VA Air Board approved it on January 8, 2019. We organized two events on February 19, 2019, with Rev. William Barber, II and former Vice President Al Gore, first privately at Union Grove Baptist Church, and then publicly at Buckingham Middle School, which drew huge crowds. This brought national attention to Union Hill as an environmental justice community, as did a concurrent on-line petition letter project signed by hundreds of people, including well-known environmentalists, politicians, and celebrities.
In October 2019, SELC’s and Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) joint appeal of the CS air permit was heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Their case focused on two EJ-evidence related points:
Virginia’s Clean Air Act requirement to consider Best Available Technology (BACT) for each toxic pollutant and avoidance of disproportionate impacts on EJ majority communities. In this case, PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) from the proposed 4 gas-fired turbines would be nearly erased if electric turbines were used – as proposed in public comments.
Conflicting demographic data about whether or not Union Hill was majority Black (our study finding) or majority White (Dominion’s & DEQ’s findings – misuses of census tract records) was left undetermined by the Air Board decision. The Air Board could not evade resolution by relying on the Buckingham BoS’s (Board of Supervisors) approval of a special use zoning permit that did not address EJ issues, including demographics or health impacts.
At the hearing, Fourth Circuit judges required lawyers for the defendant, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Dominion Energy to admit on the record that the methods used by the community study would achieve demographic accuracy, rather than theirs. DEQ and Dominion were required to state that our household study finding was correct – that an “environmental justice community existed at the proposed CS site”. These admittances provided the basis for the 4th Circuit to “decide” the question of whether or not a proven EJ community was to be disproportionately adversely impacted by PM2.5 at greater amounts than those experienced by neighboring communities in the county.
On January 7, 2020, the Fourth Circuit judges’ published decision overturned Dominion’s air permit in Union Hill, stating “environmental justice was not a box to be checked” but to be reviewed by permit decision-makers by site-based analyses of key features. This huge win for environmental justice, was of national significance, proving to be a major turning point for the ACP, marking the eighth time since May 2018 that a federal court or the federal agencies themselves had revoked or suspended ACP permits. On July 1, 2020, the Virginia Environmental Justice Act went into effect (having been promoted and contributed to by our coalition). On Friday, July 5, 2020, Dominion and Duke Energy canceled the ACP.
Just as Jim Crow Segregation followed from post-Civil War emancipation, and voting rights for formerly enslaved men in former Confederate states, our environmental justice wins were followed by Mountain Valley Pipeline’s investors doubling down on political donations and legislative pressure to restore their former political clout. The Virginia legislature voted in February 2022 to end citizen air and water board decision-making; and, the U.S. Congress passed a 2023 Debt Reduction Act bill that removes all obstacles to building the failing MVP.
Lakshmi Fjord, PhD, environmental justice anthropologist
AMMD-Pine Grove Project, EJ Chair, Historic Preservation Team
Brown Grove Preservation Group
Union Hill Freedmen Family Research Project, Research Director
Friends of Buckingham member
Mountain Valley Pipeline, intervener
Climate Ambassador, Physicians for Social Responsibility
Founder, Convenor, Charlottesville People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Environmental Justice Impacts of Fracking — ACP, MVP, envirjustice-acp-mvp-peoplestribunals.org
Interviewed by Heidi Dhivya Berthoud May, 2023