Pastor Wilson's War

I spent Sunday morning at Union Grove Missionary Baptist Church, just down the road from the old Shelton store and the historic freedman community of Union Hill. The church, clapboard and quaint, sits in the heart of Buckingham County. The African-American community is deeply attached to this place where many have ancestors, buried nearby, who first farmed here on their own land after slavery was abolished. The land is still graced with ancient barns, Jersey cows and groves of pine. 

Pastor Paul Wilson has two congregations here and both are within walking distance of a planned compressor station for the high-pressure fracked-gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Last year, he was arrested in a protest. At the time he said, "My church community is in the ground-zero zone of Dominion's dangerous compressor station." Dominion Energy is satisfied that their station will be safe. But the company's adversary here is not and he is a force to be reckoned with. Paul Wilson lives by the words, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

He is not silent. He knows what his congregation, dressed in their Sunday best, has in store.  Compressor stations release toxic emissions: methane, nitrogen dioxides, volatile organic compounds, benzene, toluene, formaldehyde. The compressor station in Reed, Pennsylvania releases more than 46 tons a year of nitrous oxide that reports say can cause numbness and mental damage. Combined with the volatile organic compounds, it can create ozone, at ground level, that inhibits crops by as much as 30 percent.

Within 1,500 feet of compressor stations around the country, there have been cases of nose bleeds, rashes and vomiting during "venting" or "blow downs." When Dominion wanted to place the compressor station on forest land, the US Forestry Service declined, saying it would be too much of a threat to wildlife. The sound, during normal operation, is like four diesel locomotive engines running around the clock. The hymns in Union Grove Missionary Baptist would be drowned out by the roar of noise. During venting of the 53,000 horse-power station, the sound is more like a jet landing. And the methane released during venting is 70 to 100 percent more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. 

There is, of course, the danger of explosions. If you want to see the power of the fires and explosions at compressor stations in other parts of the country, look at the Falcon explosion south of Pinedale, Wyoming in December 2016 or the Logan County, Oklahoma explosion in April 2013. Fires have raged in Lathrop, Pennsylvania, Marengo County, Alabama, Brooklyn Township, Pennsylvania, Branchburg, New Jersey, Geismer, Louisiana, and Windsor, New York. 

Pastor Wilson weaves the pipeline story into his sermons. It is an ever- present part of life here. The sharp, clean air on a winter morning may soon be fouled by the toxic brew of emissions, endangering the health of the 250 parishioners. Wilson will fight it.

If the station is built, there will be no staff 16 out of 24 hours. Everything will be automated. When there is trouble, the volunteer fire department will have to call in a gas pipeline crew, whose travel time will be hours not minutes. Hopefully, the emergency shutdown system will work. There will be evacuations for residents up to a mile away. We would be evacuated from church. The old Shelton store and the land that waits for the bulldozers is so close. At least the one room school house that many around me attended as children has been moved and saved. The old store is rotting, posted with "no trespassing" signs. The court battles so far have not favored the people of Union Hill. There is bitterness and resignation, a sense that yet again, an African-American community is sacrificed for someone else's gain. Pastor Wilson preaches about Moses, leading his people out of Egypt. Hopefully he will not have to lead his people out of Union Hill.



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