The unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is a victory for opponents of a proposal to build the station in Union Hill, an unincorporated community that was founded by freed slaves after the Civil War.
Lead developer Dominion Energy said the compressor station would have far fewer air emissions and more air control monitoring than any other station in the country. But opponents argued that the State Air Pollution Control Board and Dominion did not carefully consider the project’s potential health effects on Union Hill residents.
During oral arguments before the 4th Circuit in October, lawyers for opponents of the project said the state failed to consider the “unequal treatment” of people who live near the proposed site for the compressor station. Opponents said they were concerned that exhaust from the station could cause harmful health effects on nearby residents, most of whom are African American.
In its written ruling, the three-judge panel said it agreed with opponents that the board failed to assess the station's potential for disproportionate health effects on the community of Union Hill. The panel also said it agreed that the board failed to consider electric turbines as zero-emission alternatives to gas-fired turbines in the compressor station.
Union Hill is in rural Buckingham County, about an hour's drive west of Richmond. During the October hearing, Deputy Solicitor General Martine Cicconi said the Air Pollution Control 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.
In its written ruling, the court said the board's reliance on air quality standards “led it to dismiss (environmental justice) concerns.” “The Board rejected the idea of disproportionate impact on the basis that air quality standards were met. But 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," Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote.
The pipeline, which would run 600 miles (965 kilometers) 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 2018.
The 4th Circuit panel sent the case back to the Air Pollution Control Board. Dominion said it will immediately begin working with the state to resolve the issues identified by the court. “We are confident the additional analysis required by the Court can be completed in a timely manner. We expect the project will still deliver significant volumes to customers under our existing timeline, even as we work to resolve this permit," said Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby.
Greg Buppert, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the ruling validates the concerns of Union Hill residents. “The community felt like the company was trying to erase them out of existence," Buppert said. "I think the court took those issues very seriously and listened.”