In A Major Step Forward For Environmental Justice, Court Rejects Pipeline Permit

Union Hill Baptist Church Members  Photo: 

In a case we have been following, there was good news yesterday when a three-judge federal Federal Appeals Court panel in Virginia invalidated a state air pollution permit for a natural gas compressor station planned as part of a 600-mile natural gas pipeline project because the state permitting board failed to consider the disproportionate health effects on nearby Union Hill, a predominantly African American community.  In a case brought by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and several local environmental and community groups that oppose the pipeline, the judges held that “environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked, and the board’s failure to consider the disproportionate impact on those closest to the compressor station resulted in a flawed analysis,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Why This Matters:  This is not the end of the line for the pipeline — the Court threw out the permit but the state will now get a do-over.  Still, the fact that the Court specifically decided the case on environmental justice grounds is a huge step forward.  The permit’s standards for air pollution were in fact comparatively strict, but the Court said that the state must nevertheless look at disproportionate impacts on the predominantly minority residents of the community.  Local residents see the decision as “vindication” of their concerns, which they argue the state and Dominion Energy, the pipeline company, ignored.  The Democratic Governor of Virginia and his appointees to the air permit board must get this right the next time.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline Has Stiff Opposition 

The Atlantic Pipeline project is now two years behind its original schedule and about $3 billion over its original budget. The Court has already invalidated federal environment permits issued for the project, but this is the first time it rejected the state air permit.  Descendants of slaves founded the Union Hill neighborhood after the Civil War and the site of the compressor station was formerly an antebellum plantation, which made the case a noteworthy one for environmental justice issues.  The Court strongly condemned the state, saying:

“To be clear, if true, it is admirable that the compressor station ‘has more stringent requirements than any similar compressor station anywhere in the United States,’ and that residents of Union Hill ‘will be breathing cleaner air than the vast majority of Virginia residents even after the compressor station goes into operation,’”  the Court said.  “But these mantras do not carry the day.  What matters is whether the board has performed its statutory duty to determine whether this facility is suitable for this site, in light of [environmental justice] and potential health risks for the people of Union Hill. It has not.”

And A Bigger Challenge Ahead

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case in which the pipeline company and the federal government are appealing a different court’s decision that the U.S. Forest Service could not permit the project to cross beneath the Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

To Go Deeper:  There is an excellent series of podcasts about the pipeline called “End of the Line” that you can listen to on Soundcloud here.  And for a summary of the upcoming Supreme Court case on the pipeline and to read the briefs, our friends at ScotusBlog have it all right here.

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