Atlantic Coast Pipeline would hurt black residents most, NAACP says

Building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through low-income Eastern North Carolina counties would force people of color to bear more than their share of the risks posed by the nation’s power infrastructure, the NAACP said in a report released Tuesday.

“African American and other environmental justice communities face heavy burdens because of the millions of pounds of hazardous emissions released by the oil and gas industry each year,” said the report, titled “Fumes Across the Fence Line.”

“Many African American communities face serious health risks as a result of toxic pollution from industrial facilities that are often located blocks from their homes. These life-threatening burdens are the result of systemic oppression perpetuated by the traditional energy industry, which exposes communities to health, economic and social hazards.”

Developers of the pipeline dispute the report’s claims.

The pipeline is a project of Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas, a collective that hopes to build the $5 billion-plus project in 2018 and begin using it in 2019. The nearly 600-mile line would run from West Virginia into Virginia and through North Carolina, and would be used to transport fracked natural gas from the Marcellus shale drilling region in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The gas would be used primarily by power generating plants.

Its proponents have promised that construction of the line would bring 17,000 temporary jobs, would keep energy costs lower for North Carolina users, and would be safe.

Critics say it is unnecessary because North Carolina already is bisected by a gas pipeline to which power companies have access; there are no guarantees that there won’t be catastrophic explosions as have occurred on other gas pipelines; it will commit the state to the continued use of fossil fuels and deter development of renewable sources; and that it would cause irreparable environmental harm to wetlands and streams including the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse and Cape Fear rivers.

The pipeline would traverse eight counties in Eastern North Carolina, and its developers would build a compressor station in Northampton County to push the gas through the line.

The NAACP report says that low-income African Americans who live along the pipeline route – in what the report calls fence-line communities – already are at higher risk of illness than the general population, and exposure to pollutants associated with the pipeline would make their problems worse.

In particular, the report says, in Northampton County where the compressor station would be built, the population is 54.6 percent African American and the median household income is $31,453, nearly $15,000 below the state average. Almost 32 percent of the county’s residents live in poverty, the report notes, compared to 17.2 percent statewide.

The report says the overall cancer rate in the county is higher now than the state average, with 517 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 489 cases per 100,000 people across the state. Lung and bronchial cancers occur at a rate of 81 cases per 100,000 people in the county, while the state average is 70 cases.

A 2016 report by Clean Water for North Carolina said compressors on gas pipelines emit volatile organic compounds that are associated with higher risks of cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular illness and birth defects, and complaints of headaches, sinus problems and skin irritations. The closer people live to the compressors, the report said, the higher the risk of problems.

The NAACP’s report said that nationwide, African Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than white Americans, and they are 75 percent more likely to live in fence-line communities where they are affected by noise, odor, traffic and chemical emissions.

“It is not a coincidence that so many African Americans live near oil gas development,” wrote the authors, Lesley Fleischman of the Clean Air Task Force and Marcus Franklin of the NAACP. “Historically, polluting facilities have often been sited in or near African American communities. Companies take advantage of communities that have low levels of political power. In these communities, companies may face lower transaction costs associated with getting needed permits, and they have more of an ability to influence local government in their favor.”

While some local governments support the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would come through their communities, opponents of the project have been organizing across the state. Some say they are opposed to it on moral grounds.

In October, Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration rejected the pipeline developers’ environmental plan, saying it did not meet the state’s standards for erosion and sediment control. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality asked Charlotte-based Duke and its partners to resubmit the application with additional information or to contest the agency’s disapproval and request a hearing within 60 days. The company said it would submit the information requested.

Tammie McGee, spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said the pipeline’s route was chosen based on where the gas is needed by the utility companies. Placing the pipeline in economically distressed communities will actually help them, she said, by providing energy infrastructure that can attract industry and manufacturing.

McGee cited general improvements in U.S. air quality attributed to moving away from coal-fired power generation in favor of natural gas. She disputed claims that compressor stations cause health problems for nearby neighbors, saying the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has deemed them safe. She said the company would keep air emissions from the compressor station below regulatory limits.

“The positive economic impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will be significant for Eastern North Carolina and will improve the lives of thousands of residents,” McGee said. “It is not an exaggeration to say that this project represents the largest capital investment in the economic future of this region in many decades.

“We’re excited about the possibility of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline attracting new jobs and new industries to our state, and particularly this region,” she continued. “Also, the opportunity to gain millions in new tax dollars will allow the necessary public investments to restore prosperity to these communities.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin