In Brown Grove lawsuit over Hanover Wegmans distribution center, Union Hill
A year and a half after a federal court overturned a state air permit allowing pipeline developers to construct a gas compressor station in the majority-Black community of Union Hill on the grounds that environmental justice concerns hadn’t been adequately considered, the ruling continues to cast a long shadow in Virginia.
Now, a coalition of Hanover County residents and the local NAACP chapter are turning to the case, Friends of Buckingham County v. Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board, as a key part of a lawsuit they’ve filed to overturn a water permit issued this spring by the State Water Control Board.
That permit, which after a full-day meeting this March narrowly won approval on a 4-3 vote, will allow a 1.7 million square foot Wegmans distribution center to be constructed adjacent to the Brown Grove community, founded by freedpeople in the wake of the Civil War.
For many, the parallels between Brown Grove and Buckingham County’s Union Hill, another community founded by freedpeople after the Civil War, are glaring.
“What is occurring in Brown Grove is the repetition of Jackson Ward’s history. It is the repetition of Union Hill’s history. And yet here we are today repeating the same mistakes, destroying a Black community,” Patricia Hunter-Jordan, president of the Hanover NAACP, said during a press conference April 30 announcing the lawsuit.
The suit, which was filed by attorney Brian Buniva in Richmond Circuit Court on April 23 on behalf of the Hanover NAACP, Protect Hanover grassroots group and 20 local residents, makes explicit that connection, evoking the 4th Circuit’s admonition to Virginia environmental officials that “environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked.”
“At most the administrative record demonstrates an anemic effort to ensure ‘fair treatment’ and ‘meaningful involvement’ of petitioners and the Brown Grove community akin to the ‘check the box’ approach of (the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality) condemned by the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit,” the filing contends.
The Wegmans project has been controversial since its inception. The company, which is expanding operations southward down the Interstate 95 corridor, began looking in 2017 for a site for a new distribution center that could serve southern Virginia and North Carolina stores.
Wegmans believed it had found the best location on 219 acres next to Brown Grove a little less than two miles from Interstate 95 in Hanover. The company was courted by the state and county to choose Hanover, receiving $2.35 million in grant funds from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund. In December 2019, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office announced the site selection, touting the 700 new jobs and $175 million in investment it would bring the area.
“What was determined was that within Hanover County was the ultimate epicenter, if you will, of where this facility needed to be located in order to minimize the amount of over-road miles that we have,” Dan Aken, director of real estate for Wegmans Food Markets, told the State Water Control Board in March. And the site near Brown Grove, he said, was preferable to four other sites identified in the county.
Many residents of the adjoining neighborhoods disagreed. Sliding Hill and Ashcake Roads along which employees and trucks would travel are narrow, dangerous for heavy traffic and frequently flood, they contended. Brown Grove Baptist Church Deacon Kenneth Spurlock at the April 30 news conference said some 17 crashes had occurred on Ashcake Road in front of the church in recent years; two months prior, one had damaged the sign and the church’s gates.