Minority Communities Face Greatest Risk as Atlantic Coast Pipeline Pushes Into Rural America
Promising jobs and property tax revenue, owners of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are pushing ahead against grassroots resistance and expert testimony, both maintaining that such gains are outweighed by the potential for great harm to be borne mostly by rural, African-American, and Indigenous communities, as well as delicate ecosystems.
Stretching 600 miles southeast from West Virginia’s Marcellus shale region to southern North Carolina, the planned pipeline and its three formaldehyde- and methane-spewing compressor stations will mostly be “built in lower-income, rural communities, bypassing more affluent property owners,” reports Grist.
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Dominion Energy and two heavy-hitting Southern U.S. utilities, Duke Energy and Southern Company, are trying to pitch the project on two grounds: that the demand for natural gas is growing, and that it will bring economic benefits to the beleaguered communities through which it passes. Grist writes that the pipeline’s industry backers have estimated that “it would provide 17,000 construction jobs and generate US$28 million each year in property taxes for the 25 counties and two cities it will pass through.”
With its proposed route winding through some of the most economically depressed communities in the country, that argument has won over some regional politicians. County leaders in Robeson County, NC, for example, “endorsed the pipeline project in early 2016 amid guarantees that it would provide $900,000 a year in revenue from property taxes once completed.” Such endorsement comes in the wake of a two-decade decline in the county’s manufacturing and farming sectors, with job losses numbering in the tens of thousands, and an annual loss of $713 million in incomes and business taxes between 1993 and 2003 alone.
Though he staunchly opposes the pipeline, Rev. Mac Legerton, acting director of the North Carolina Climate Solutions Coalition, told Grist he understands the power it has over local people grown desperate. “With the deconstruction of the rural economy, the local politicians and state policy-makers are grasping at straws because survivability becomes a priority, not sustainability,” he said. “We’re vulnerable to the money the fossil fuel industry has.”
The communities are also vulnerable to mostly empty promises, writes Grist, noting that most of the 17,000 construction jobs promised by the pipeline “are highly specialized, so many of the workers have come from out of state.” And once the line is built, even those jobs will vanish, with infrastructure requiring only “a few dozen inspectors and technicians,” according to a Dominion spokesperson.
Winding through mountainous terrain, which scientists warn is “unstable in spots,” and through pristine watersheds and forestland, the proposed pipeline also poses significant environmental threats—threats that seem all the more pressing with a project notorious for “receiving expedited approvals from government officials without sufficient oversight.”
Which is par for the course in rural areas of America which tend to be far less regulated than urban communities and, therefore, a cheaper and easier bet for industry looking to build big infrastructure projects, said Carl Weimer, executive director of Washington-based Pipeline Safety Trust. The regions through which the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would snake are almost entirely rural.
They are also almost entirely poor, with many counties in West Virginia, where the pipeline would start, suffering cruelly from the decline of coal, with “some of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the country.”
Determined to break free for good from the economic and social hardship wrought by the boom-bust cycles of a fossil-based economy, “activists, former miners, and community leaders have long worked to diversify the region’s economy through agriculture, outdoor recreation, renewable energy, and the arts,” writes Grist.
One such effort at diversification has been West Virginia’s “small but steady” brook trout industry. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed route crosses 40 of the state’s wild trout streams, Grist says, and if those streams “become contaminated or degraded enough to damage brook trout populations,” an environmental disaster will also be an economic one: “In 2017, sales of trout fishing licences raised nearly $1 million for the state, and the angling economy enables gas stations, restaurants, lodges, and other businesses to flourish during the fishing season.”
Likewise profoundly vulnerable are predominantly African-American communities like Garysburg, North Carolina, which is located in one of the “designated ‘high consequence areas’ for the pipeline, where the extent of damage to property or the chance of serious injury or death are significant.”
Potentially delivering on those “high consequences” is the compressor station slated to be built near Garysburg. “Designed to keep natural gas flowing through the pipeline,” explains Grist, compressor stations are insufficiently regulated, and are steady emitters of formaldehyde and methane, as well as CO2.
“There is also a risk of explosions,” says Grist, recalling how, “in 2015, a compressor station in Louisiana blew up, killing four workers, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage, forcing a rural neighbourhood to evacuate, and shutting down a highway.”
Two out of the three compressor stations slated to be built along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will be placed in predominantly African-American communities, Grist says, a transparent inequity that is commonplace for low-income and minority communities across the United States. The story cites an Environmental Protection Agency research project last year which concluded that “black people are more likely than any other ethnic group to be exposed to fine particulate air pollution from industrial facilities,” a finding “consistent with decades of research that shows hazardous waste facilities and emissions sources are often built near marginalized communities.”
Indigenous tribes along the proposed route for the pipeline are also vulnerable: in 2018, Dominion Energy offered the Lumbee Tribe of eastern North Carolina and three other Native American tribes $1 million each in exchange for agreeing “not to hinder or delay the development, construction or operation” of the pipeline. “In the contract was a waiver of the tribes’ right to present any claims against the pipeline, and a requirement to issue a statement that they had each resolved any issues with developers,” Grist says.
Declining the buyout, the Lumbee have refused to support a project that will cross lands they consider sacred, as well as precious archaeological sites. They’re determined to protect the wetland ecosystem upon which they have relied for centuries.
“But their ability to do so is limited,” because “Congress does not recognize the Lumbee as a sovereign nation and has not allowed them the full benefits of federal protection,” Grist writes.
“Many Native Americans living east of the Mississippi are members of tribes that aren’t considered sovereign because they have no federal recognition,” said Lumbee Tribe member Ryan Emanuel, a professor at North Carolina State University. And “without federal recognition, we don’t have access to protective standards—even substandard ones.”