Ella Rose, a Union Hill activist, engages with a participant at a June event in Washington, D.C., organized by the Poor People’s Campaign. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan / Energy News Network

Court challenges have stalled, for now, Dominion’s plans to build a compressor station about 1/3 mile from Ella Rose’s home. 

UNION HILL, Va. — It was the lyrical, three-note song of the whippoorwill that lured Ella Rose back home to retire in rural Buckingham County seven years ago.

Now, she fears the bird’s mesmerizing call will be drowned out — and its natural habitat ruined — if Dominion Energy proceeds with construction of a natural gas pipeline compressor station it has permission to build roughly one-third of a mile from the house that has become her haven.

“I heard whippoorwills when I was coming up,” Rose said about her childhood in adjacent Nelson County. “It makes you feel so peaceful.” 

The thought of losing that serenity prompted the 75-year-old to find her voice and articulate the threats Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline poses to this tiny rural community settled after the Civil War by free blacks and former slaves. It’s 70 miles west of Richmond.

Chad Oba, a neighbor who co-founded Friends of Buckingham five years ago, first nudged a somewhat reluctant Rose into the spotlight. Leaders of the anti-pipeline group urged community members to tell their personal stories.

“The lesson I learned from Chad is that you have to have the courage to speak because when you speak up you find you have tremendous supporters,” Rose said about overcoming her reticence. “She is my rock and salvation.”

Since that initial presentation to local government officials, Rose has traveled to rallies around her home state, to congressional offices on Capitol Hill and to gatherings in North Carolina and Massachusetts. With each presentation, her voice became stronger, her delivery more polished.

If built, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would bisect Virginia for roughly 300 of its 600 miles to move hydraulically fractured natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina.

Dominion claims the wooded acreage near Rose’s house on Highway 56 is ideal for the compressor station because of a necessary connection to Transco, a separate and existing natural gas pipeline. 

Rose is afraid noises and smells from pipeline infrastructure will pollute the air, harm her well water and scare away the songbirds, turkeys, deer and black bears that rely on the nearby oak woods and wetlands. She is also terrified that a gas leak and explosion could obliterate her community.

“I never turn anything down,” she said about speaking invitations. “And it’s not that I’m trying to be a celebrity. I’m getting my message out.”

A broken “no pipeline” sign rests outside a home in Union Hill, where residents are divided over Dominion Energy’s plan to build a compressor station for the utility’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (photo by Elizabeth McGowan) Credit: Elizabeth McGowan / Energy News Network

Next stop: September town hall

Rose is also becoming more at ease addressing the environmental justice issues that were obvious to Union Hill residents immediately. 

Minority and low-income communities have long been saddled with coal ash dumps, refineries, power plants, landfills, interstate highways and other threats to their well-being. Only now is Virginia beginning to grapple with these inequities. 

“I do believe that this location was selected because we are African Americans,” Rose said. “People need to know our lives count, too.

“I feel abandoned by a process that does not serve me. This pipeline is intruding on our life and we’re not benefiting at all.”

She will be expanding on that theme on the afternoon of Sept. 7 as a participant in a town hall organized by Oba’s group, Yogaville Environmental Solutions, and Bridging the Gap in Virginia.

“Our Air, Our Health, Our Common Future: The Fight to Save Union Hill” will be held on ancestral land of Taylor Harper, a former slave who settled in Union Hill after buying acreage — a piece of the plantation where he had been enslaved.

Organizers have invited 28 Democratic state legislators to the event. In June, those lawmakers signed a friend-of-the-court brief for another pipeline lawsuit, this one challenging the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board’s decision to approve a permit for the compressor station. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the case in February.

Last month, 18 of those legislators also urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to stop work on the entire pipeline.

“What kind of a Commonwealth are we?” the town hall organizers wrote in their invitation letter to legislators. “Are we a Commonwealth that stays silent when the health of a community that has enjoyed more than 150 years of cultural cohesion, oral traditions and clean air finds its continued existence threatened? Or do we stand up as one and say no?”

Progress on the pipeline has mostly stalled because of numerous court challenges. Dominion did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

In March, a Dominion spokesperson told the Energy News Network in an email that the company was undaunted by any setbacks.

“Regardless of temporary delays … we are confident in the ultimate outcome: The [pipeline] will be completed,” Karl Neddenien, now retired, said then.

Ella Rose is seated next to Al Gore’s daughter, Karenna Gore, of the Center for Earth Ethics. Both served on a panel in Washington, D.C., organized by the Poor People’s Campaign. (photo by Elizabeth McGowan) Credit: Elizabeth McGowan / Energy News Network

‘I’m going to keep on fighting’ 

Ella Rose, one of eight children, left rural Virginia as a young adult to seek her fortune in Washington, D.C. She worked at a downtown restaurant before taking a civilian job in food service at what is now Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling.

She felt the harsh sting of racial discrimination throughout her career, knowing she had to “grin and bear it” to stay employed.

But she kept plugging away because she and her older sister, Merniece, had hatched a retirement scheme for Union Hill, 8 miles from where they grew up. When Merniece was 18, she had taken on the role of parent to Ella, who was just 7 when the girls’ mother died. 

In 1998, the sisters pooled their savings to buy a patch of property and a house in Union Hill one of their brothers owned. But Merniece died two years later.

Rose, who retired in 2010 at age 66, was finally able to move south in 2012. She cherishes the quiet and beauty that surround her one-story house with gray siding and burgundy trim.

“My idea had always been to travel to as many national parks as I could and collect my small antiques,” she said.

That changed in 2014 when Oba knocked on her door.

“At first, I didn’t give it much thought,” she said about Dominion’s infrastructure. “How bad can this be?”

But the more information she absorbed at meetings in a local church, the more disturbed she became. She says that nobody from the utility ever knocked on her door to communicate.

Some families have called Union Hill home for eight generations. It has pained Rose to watch a divide over the compressor station cleave those bonds and pit neighbor against neighbor. 

Some favored the infrastructure as an economic boomlet, assuaged by a $5.1 million package of community improvements offered by Dominion. Land across from Rose’s house was cleared as a site for a housing camp for pipeline construction crews.

Others remained staunchly opposed. They felt especially betrayed in January when the State Air Pollution Control Board voted unanimously to approve a compressor station permit. 

That 4-0 vote came just a few months after Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam had replaced two board members who were leaning against the permit. The original board had delayed an early November vote on the permit.

Some in the community pressured Rose to relent.

“When you try to bully me, that encourages me to be stronger,” she said. “What I tell them is that I’m not afraid of you or Dominion. I have rights, too.”

In February, the points she and her allies have hammered on since 2014 finally gained traction and attention beyond a small circle in Virginia.

That’s when the Rev. William Barber II and former Vice President Al Gore led a meeting at Buckingham Middle School. In front of more than 700 attendees, they criticized Northam and Dominion for condoning acts of environmental racism in Union Hill.

Both Gore, a longtime environmentalist and founder of the Climate Reality Project, and Barber, a North Carolina social justice advocate who is leading the Poor People’s Campaign, visited Rose’s house, too.

“Four years have gone by before we got anybody to listen,” she said about that uplifting day. “Then it went viral.”

Rose has to be in the right frame of mind to “get myself together and get the words out.” Her restorative medicine comes in two forms — church services and time in her treasured backyard.

“This is where I want to be. It’s home,” she said. “I don’t want money and I don’t want to relocate. It’s heart-wrenching to know that everything of value I worked hard all my life for could be taken away.”

She said she wants to continue to be the same happy person she’s always been, refusing to be consumed by anger and hatred.

“And I’m going to keep on fighting,” she said. “I’m never going to stop.”

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Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.