Al Gore meets with Virginians fighting gas pipeline station

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II delivers passionate speech, drawing applause from former Vice President Al Gore. (CNS photo by Katja Timm)
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UNION HILL, Va. (AP) — Former Vice President Al Gore urged residents of a historic African-American community in Virginia on Tuesday to continue their fight against a plan to build a natural gas pipeline compressor station in their neighborhood.

Gore and social justice advocate the Rev. William Barber II met with residents of Union Hill, a rural community about 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Richmond that was founded by emancipated slaves after the Civil War.

The visit by Gore and Barber — part of an environmental justice tour — came weeks after a racial scandal rocked state government when both Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring acknowledged wearing blackface in the 1980s.

Gore told residents that the proposal to build the compressor station in the African-American community is a "vivid example of environmental racism."

"This proposed pipeline is a reckless, racist rip-off," Gore said.

He said Northam should fulfill his promise for racial reconciliation by opposing the pipeline project.

"This is an ideal opportunity for him to say, 'I've seen the light,'" Gore said.

During a raucous meeting before more than 700 people at Buckingham Middle School, Barber said Dominion Energy — the lead developer of the pipeline — is "practicing sin" by proposing to build the compressor station in Union Hill.

"I want to say tonight that any governor or legislator, Democrat or Republican ... that has chosen Dominion over this community is scandalous," Barber said.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run 600 miles (965 kilometers) and carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina.

Opponents are concerned that exhaust from the 54,000-horsepower compressor station would hurt low-income and elderly residents living in Union Hill. Supporters say it will boost development.

Compressor stations are used to power interstate natural gas pipelines, moving gas through the system.

Dominion Energy, Virginia's most powerful corporation, has said it chose Union Hill for the compressor station because the community had enough land for sale and it intersects with an existing pipeline.

The company has also said that most air emissions at the station will be 50 to 80 percent lower than at any other compressor station in Virginia.

With a current price tag of more than $7 billion, the pipeline has recently suffered significant legal setbacks, including a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling throwing out a permit for the pipeline to cross two national forests, including parts of the Appalachian Trail. Dominion has suspended all project construction and said it plans to appeal the ruling.

Northam angered environmentalists and minority groups when he replaced two members of the state's Air Pollution Control Board who had raised questions about the project after the board delayed a scheduled vote in November.

Northam, a Democrat, said the move was unrelated to the compressor station vote and that members were replaced because their terms had expired.

Gore called the move to replace the members "grotesque."

"This was a favor for Dominion," he said.

Gore, the founder of The Climate Reality Project, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his campaign to protect the environment.

Some residents of Union Hill, while not in favor of the project, have come to accept it.

Dominion has offered to give more than $5 million to help improve Union Hill.

Michelle Ford, a 47-year-old trainer and instructor for the state Department of Corrections who has lived in Union Hill her whole life, said she is not happy about the compressor station but she can see some economic benefits from the project, including job opportunities in the rural area.

"Nobody is saying, 'Yes, we want it, hooray.' What we're saying is, 'If it is going to come, what can Dominion do for the Union Hill community?'" Ford said.