Environmental Racism in Union Hill, Virginia: The Inconvenient Truth

Jonathan Sokolow
Dec 15, 2018 · 7 min read

Former Vice President Al Gore has added his voice to the growing national movement to stop Dominion Energy from building a massive compressor station for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline in the heart of an historic African American community founded by Freedmen after the Civil War.

On December 11, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Presidential candidate tweeted the following:

“I support the Union Hill community in Virginia fighting this dirty fossil fuel infrastructure and I support Environmental Justice #WeAreAllUnionHill.”

In addition, Gore retweeted a tweet and a compelling video from Mustafa Santiago Ali, the senior vice president of Climate, Environmental Justice & Community Revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus. The Hip Hop Caucus is a national non-profit that connects the Hip Hop community to movements for social change. Ali wrote:

“The historic community of Union Hill, was founded by freed #Slaves and now fights against a #FossilFuel pipeline & #NaturalGas compressor. They are asking @GovernorVA Northam to protect their health, culture & community from #pollution. Let’s support them.”

Vice President Gore’s #WeAreAllUnionHill tweet is a huge development in the growing national movement to support environmental justice in Virginia. The goal is simple: to save Union Hill by convincing Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to reverse course and stop the compressor station. It comes on the heels of an in-depth national expose from NBCNews.com, as well as a strong letter of support signed by 100 prominent celebrities and activists, including Karenna Gore, Mustafa Santiago Ali, Don Cheadle, Tim Guinee, Norman Lear, Ed Begley, Jr., Piper Perabo, Barbara Gottlieb, Director of Environment and Health for Physicians for Social Responsibility, and many others.

All of which makes this an appropriate time to review a few “inconvenient truths” regarding environmental racism in Virginia, those behind the plan to destroy Union Hill and those who are complicit.

Facts are stubborn and often inconvenient. They sometimes make people uncomfortable. But as Harry Truman said, “I don’t give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.” So let us review a few hellish facts about Virginia:

Fact: In 2014, Dominion Energy CEO Thomas Farrell — a self-described fan of (mostly Southern) military history and the man with the plan to destroy Union Hill — wrote and produced a Civil War movie called Field of Lost Shoes. Field of Lost Shoes glorified Confederate Army cadets who, in Farrell’s own words, “bravely defended the Shenandoah Valley” against marauding Northern troops.

Farrell’s movie is no Birth of a Nation. But it still has no place in 21st century Virginia.

Don’t take my word for it. Just read the reviews:

· Farrell’s propaganda piece “argues no Confederates were racist.” Instead, these heroic “brave boys” were characterized by “their love of black people, their embrace of Jews, and their desire to fight so that they might protect their homeland from ‘foreign invaders,’ uphold their ‘traditions,’ and preserve their ‘future.’” “That counterfeit romantic portrait is contrasted with the contemptuous depiction of Ulysses S. Grant (Tom Skerritt) as a “butcher” and the Union as a bunch of child-murderers led by a goofily mustached David Arquette.” In short, Farrell’s movie “stands as a pinnacle of revisionist bullshit.”

· The Hollywood Reporter was no more generous to Farrell’s “revisionist bullshit.” Filled with “strained Southern accents and fake facial hair, where none of the staunch Southerners seem to hold any negative feelings toward blacks,” this “low-budget Civil War drama…can charitably be described as revisionist history whose “experience at the box office should match the fate of the Confederacy.”

· Another reviewer cataloged the outright historical lies masquerading as truth contained in the Dominion Energy CEO’s movie. One such example is Farrell’s treatment of the Governor of Virginia, Henry A. Wise, who in real life described the antebellum south as “being filled by ignorant, lazy slaves of a degraded race.” Viewers of the film would see Wise transformed into “practically William Lloyd Garrison,” the celebrated abolitionist. The reviewer concluded simply: “There are as many examples of this sort of bullshit in the film as the screenplay has words.”

Dominion Energy is currently arguing that its plan for the predominantly African American community of Union Hill is not a case of environmental racism because — hold on to your hat — Union Hill is not actually predominantly African American. Like Farrell’s film, that latest lie — concocted just recently after Union Hill made the national news — truly “stands as a pinnacle of revisionist bullshit.” But more on that below.

Here are some more inconvenient facts about what is going on in Virginia:

Fact: The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP and the Governor’s own 15 member Advisory Council on Environmental Justice have called Tom Farrell’s plan for Union Hill environmental racism.

Fact: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam refuses to stop Dominion Energy. To the contrary, he is busy rigging the vote of the Air Pollution Control Board — which is scheduled to decide the fate of Union Hill on December 19 — to ensure its approval. Northam’s abandonment of Union Hill contrasts sharply with his defense of (inconvenient fact alert) his effort to defend George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation.

Back in June, Northam was asked about Dominion’s plan to build a different compressor station in a majority African American community in Maryland. Northam chose to speak out , but not for the African American residents in Maryland whose health would be affected. Instead, he said he was “concerned” because the compressor station’s smokestacks would obstruct “the view” from Mount Vernon. Yes, the view. From the plantation.

A week later, Dominion announced that it would look for another site. The project has now been cancelled. But Union Hill remains on the chopping block. And Ralph Northam is silent.

Fact: Dominion has donated lavishly to Northam’s campaigns and to his inaugural, as it has to most politicians in both parties in Virginia.

If all of that sounds bad, it gets worse.

Fact: In 2010, Governor Northam’s current Chief of Staff, Clark Mercer, started an oyster company that he called “Old Plantation Oyster Company.” The company also started a website, where it boasted that “we think you’ll love our Old Plantations.” And the company had big plans, looking to grow 150,000 oysters by the spring of 2011. It even tested the “Old Plantations” at a June 2011 Virginia Democratic Party fundraising dinner.

Mercer’s business partner was his childhood friend, one Matt Strickler.

As we have noted before, the “Old Plantation” narrative came to be known in Hollywood and in literature as the “plantation tradition,” meaning “works that look back nostalgically to the times before the Civil War, before the ‘Lost Cause’ of the Southern Confederacy was lost, as a time when an idealized, well-ordered agrarian world and its people held certain values in common.”

The Old Plantation Oyster Company was a flop. But its website stayed active until people started asking questions earlier this year. Then the site mysteriously went down.

But back in 2010, the name “Old Plantation Oyster Company” did not appear to bother Clark Mercer or Matt Strickler. Did they have some nostalgia for the “Lost Cause.” Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say no. Maybe they were just tone deaf.

In any case, Matt Strickler is now Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources. In that capacity, Strickler oversees the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which has recommended approval of the permit for the Union Hill compressor station.

But back in 2010, when he helped start the Old Plantation Oyster Company, Strickler was the 29-year-old Chief of Staff to a relatively unknown Virginia State Senator.

His name was Ralph Northam.

Fact: Dominion Energy is erasing black lives. Literally. In filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and in recent filings with the Air Pollution Control Board, Dominion Energy is trying to rewrite the 150 year history of Union Hill. Despite door to door surveys of the community of Union Hill, the historical record and drone footage, Dominion now claims that Union Hill is majority white. The claim would be laughable if it was not so disgusting.

It seems that Tom Farrell, having made a movie about lost shoes has now truly lost his mind. Can anyone say “revisionist bullshit?”

Fact: In 1869, an arsonist burned the Buckingham County courthouse to the ground. The courthouse, designed by Thomas Jefferson, contained the records of the Union Hill and the entire county. As Dr. Lakshmi Fjord, a cultural anthropologist and Visiting Scholar at the University of Virginia has written, the fire “destroyed all records of enslavement, wills [and] slave purchases of their freedom…that might be used by the 2:1 majority former slaves to sue former masters for restitution.

Which brings us to the scheduled December 19 meeting of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board. If the board approves the permit. Tom Farrell and Dominion will have accomplished what the 1869 arsonist failed to do. Union Hill will become not a “field of lost shoes,” as in Farrell’s ode to the “Lost Cause.” Instead, it will be a monument to an erased history and a community destroyed by industrial waste and poisoned air.

I can’t breathe.

To paraphrase Andrew Gillum. I’m not saying Dominion Energy and its apologists are racists. I’m saying that the racists are glad they are trying to finish the work of the 1869 arsonist.

Virginia, we can do better than this.


Jonathan Sokolow

Written by

Attorney, writer and activist living in Northern Virginia

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