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Ralph Northam Says He’s Committed to Racial Equity. So Why is He Ignoring Union Hill?

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Union Hill, VA

Standing in the churchyard at Union Hill Missionary Baptist, where gravestones mark generations of his mother’s Harper surname, Richard Walker gestured toward a house about a mile to the southwest, immediately adjacent to the 68-acre site where the nation’s biggest electric utility and its partners plan to install a gas compressor with the horsepower of an aircraft-carrier propeller to move up to 1.5 billion cubic feet of fracked fuel a day through this tiny Reconstruction settlement. 

“She’s 150 feet from the compressor station site,” Walker said, referring to the house’s owner, Ella Rose. Walker was speaking with Virginia statehouse delegates Marcia Price and Lashrecse Aird, members of the Legislative Black Caucus who said they came as individuals to learn about the impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a major natural gas project stretching from West Virginia to North Carolina.

Environmental and racial-justice advocates have been fighting for more than four years to keep the compressor station and pipeline out of Union Hill, a small community located in Buckingham County south of Charlottesville. With state and federal permits already granted, all that currently impede the project are the courts, which have vacated several permits and continue to hear appeals. But after a scandal erupted over a photo on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s page in his medical school yearbook, which showed a man in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, Northam pledged to devote the remainder of his term to racial equity. Now activists in Union Hill are calling on him to live up to that promise by reevaluating the permits granted to the project.

“Governor Northam, if you want to right a wrong, you can start with Union Hill,” Walker said earlier in the day, introducing the Black Caucus members at Union Grove Missionary Baptist, another tiny, historic church where 30 people had gathered inside on the first Sunday afternoon in April. “He’s never even come here.”

During a February visit, civil rights leader Rev. William Barber and former vice president Al Gore called on Northam to oppose the pipeline to show his commitment to racial justice. “Any governor or legislator, Democrat or Republican … that has chosen Dominion over this community is scandalous,” said Barber. “What he should do more than resign is he should get the resolve to be serious and take on this project. He could lead the nation. He could lead the South.”

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