A pipeline intended to transmit natural gas from the fracked shale fields of West Virginia has been under construction in our locale this summer. The nine-mile “Southside Connector,” owned by Southern Company/Virginia Natural Gas utility, will traverse the cities of Norfolk and Chesapeake, bordering two schools in the first city and five in the second. In Norfolk, the pipeline runs along streets lined with high density apartment buildings, a theater, and churches, along predominantly low income African-American neighborhoods, until it reaches Harbor Park Stadium. There it will cross under the Elizabeth River, emerge at Colonna’s Shipyard, and run through Berkley, along residential streets, and by churches, city parks and the Boys and Girls Club. In Chesapeake, it navigates more suburban streets, still predominantly African American. In that city, it largely runs through existing Dominion Energy utility easements that are home to electric transmission lines that pass behind rows and rows of houses.
In Chesapeake, three neighborhood civic leagues, predominantly African-American middle-class homeowners, have joined efforts to fight the pipeline. The residents fear living in a blast zone, also known as the incineration zone. They also decry that their property values will decrease and their insurance rates will rise. This continues the time worn tradition of black wealth erosion—these families will have that much less to pass on to their children, that much longer to wait for the ever deferred “level playing field.” Read up on the wealth disparities between the races in this country (start with The Ever Growing Gap by the Institute for Policy Studies).
For the last 17 months, the organized residents of Georgetown, Sunrise Hills, and Holly Glen have worked very hard. They appealed to their state government representatives. They hired an independent environmental impact study group. They asked for a hearing from the State Corporation Commission, the government entity responsible for oversight of new pipelines. In both cities, concerned residents went to their City Council. Concerned mothers pleaded with the Chesapeake School Board to ask that body to publicly express concern about the schools located within blast zones. Petitions signed by close to 2000 people have been delivered to the governor and state and local elected officials.
The results of these efforts? Elected officials met with the residents, but ultimately said there was nothing they could do. The State Corporation Commission refused their request for a hearing, saying the new pipeline is just a “continuation of services” already permitted under a certificate granted 30 years ago to allow for the construction of the electric utility’s transmission lines. The Chesapeake School Board responded with: Gas lines are buried everywhere, why should we care about this one? The Army Corp of Engineers had to weigh in because the pipeline will go under the Elizabeth River. They looked at a map and stamped their approval. At every level, Pilate washed his hands of responsibility over residents concern for safety.
At a late September press conference, President and CEO Tom Godfrey of Colonna’s Shipyard announced that the yard execs had been deceived by the gas utility about the true nature of the Southside Connector Pipeline. He said the yard had not been given all the facts when asked for an easement through its property. The shipyard executives were led to believe the easement would be for a “distribution” line, which uses 60 to 200 psi (pounds per square inch) pressure. He said:
“Let me just tell you what didn’t happen, that should have happened. The pipeline should have been described properly as a high powered transmission pipeline. We should have all received full public disclosure. We should have known it was going to be 1250 psi or 1000 psi. We didn’t. We received no information about safety systems. We received no information about how do we safely coexist with [a high pressure pipeline]. There was nothing that was open, nothing that was transparent, no hearings, no reports, no impact studies, no opportunity for everybody here to learn, to have input.”
Mr. Godfrey explained that an accident involving such a high pressured transmission gas line could have dire consequences: “The fireball can be a quarter mile wide. Then the heat can extend for 2 miles. The overt pressure, the pressure that can knock a wall down, can be for half a mile. It can destroy everything around it if it were to happen.”
The shipyard executive refused to discount the possibility of an accident: “We work hard to be safe. We are not perfect. We have accidents. So if you want to persuade me that there will never be an accident, I think you are fools. And we all have to live with managing risks in the face of probably having a few accidents, because that is what happens in the realm of the real world, in the realm of human behavior.”
Local environmental groups have pointed out other disturbing pipeline realities. First, though the gas utility claims the Southside Connector will connect two already existing pipelines, the line will end near the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake very close to the proposed end of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile interstate pipeline owned by Dominion Energy. Despite corporate obfuscation, once the ACP is built it will connect to the Southside Connector. Because the extremely lucrative ACP project could not gain federal permitting without proof of “greater public benefit” because of all the private land being taken by eminent domain along its route, one cannot help but wonder if that was the primary purpose of the Southside Connector in the first place. VNG will be Dominion Energy’s customer for the gas flowing for the Southside Connector. But where is the public good for residents of Norfolk and Chesapeake? The gas will transmit at dangerously high pressure under our streets, sidewalks, yards, and next to our schools on the way to someplace else.
Also, always at issue in local, state, and federal pipeline decision making, is the huge money that fossil fuel corporations give to political campaigns, ensuring that corporate interests outweigh citizen concerns. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, along with its proposed compressor station (slated for construction in an area populated by the descendants of freed slaves in Buckingham County, VA), and along with the Mountain Valley Pipeline already under construction in the western part of the state, has been allowed to take private properties despite outcry over racial discrimination and questionable corporate actions.
The residents of Berkley in Norfolk, the residents of Georgetown, Sunrise Hills, and Holley Glen, and now the executives of Colonna’s Shipyard all understand. When fossil fuel corporations call the shots, we are not safe. Not one of us. It is time for all of us to wake up. We must demand that our elected officials put the breaks on corporations rushing to profit from the shale gas boom before it goes bust. Mayor Alexander and Mayor West, don’t wait until a blast happens and your city is forced to pay out lawsuits to victim’s families with our tax dollars. Don’t wait until the children attending Tidewater Gardens Elementary and Ruffner Academy in Norfolk and Thurgood Marshall Elementary, Georgetown Primary, Indian River Middle School, Indian River High School and the Alternative School in Chesapeake meet with injury because of corporate greed.
A Town Hall will be held Sunday, October 14, 4pm at First Baptist Church--Berkley, 706 Berkley Avenue Ext., Norfolk, VA. Let us fill that sanctuary!
And the City Councils, the School Boards, the public safety departments of both cities need to join their voices with the residents living in the blast zone, and now the shipyard industry, to let Governor Northam know that he must make his State Corporation Commission go through a real permitting process for this high pressured transmission pipeline.
Thank you for your consideration.Kimberly WilliamsMothers Out Front, NorfolkCommunity Team Coordinator