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Appeals court hears dispute over pipeline compressor station

RICHMOND, Va. — Lawyers for opponents of a natural gas compressor station proposed in a historic African American community in Virginia told a federal appeals court Tuesday that the state has failed to carefully consider the potential health impacts of the station and “unequal treatment” of the people who live near it.

A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals heard arguments from opponents who want to overturn a permit granted by the State Air Pollution Control Board for developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to build a compressor station in Union Hill, an unincorporated community that was founded by freed slaves.

Union Hill is located in rural Buckingham County, about an hour’s drive west of Richmond.

Opponents are concerned that exhaust from the station could cause harmful health effects on nearby residents.

Dominion Energy, the lead developer of the pipeline, has said that most air emissions at the station will be 50 to 80 per cent lower than at any other compressor station in Virginia.

The judges peppered lawyers for the board and lead pipeline developer Dominion Energy about whether the state carefully examined the potential health impacts on Union Hill residents.

David Neal, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, urged the board to throw out the permit. Neal said the state Department of Environmental Quality refused to consider using electric motors for the compressor station, an alternative technology he said would greatly reduce or eliminate emissions from the station.

Jon Mueller, an attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said it is the responsibility of the board to protect the approximately 200 residents — mostly African Americans — who live near the compressor station site from harmful emissions and from “unequal treatment.” He said many of the residents have pre-existing health conditions that could be exacerbated by emissions from the station.

Deputy Solicitor General Martine Cicconi said the board “absolutely grappled” with the issue of environmental justice and carefully considered any adverse health impacts on residents. She said the emissions will fall well below emissions from other compressor stations in Virginia and will meet national ambient air quality standards.

Chief Judge Roger Gregory repeatedly questioned Cicconi on whether the state had compared potential impacts on the African American residents who live closest to the site with its potential impact on residents in the rest of Buckingham County. While most Union Hill residents are African American, the population of Buckingham County as a whole is largely white.

“Your fellow county members, how does your air compare to theirs?” Gregory asked.

Cicconi said air quality from the station proposed for Union Hill was compared to air quality in the entire state, not specifically to the rest of Buckingham County.

Amid fierce opposition from local residents, the Air Pollution Control Board approved a permit for the compressor station in January.

Mike Dowd, the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Director, said then that the department reviewed compressor station permits from around the country and scrutinized pollution control technology. He said the Union Hill station will “set a new national standard that all future compressor stations will have to meet across the country.”

The pipeline, which would run 600 miles (965 kilometres) and carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina, has been mired in legal challenges by environmental and conservation groups. Construction has been halted since December.

John Laury, who lives less than a mile from where the compressor station would be built, said he was pleased after listening to the aggressive questioning by the 4th Circuit judges about the board’s evaluation of potential health impacts on Union Hill residents.

“They did not consider us first. The community was not considered,” he said.

Denise Lavoie, The Associated Press