Big Coal in Small-Town Virginia: A Case Study of Environmental Justice and Racial Polarization in the Rural South

First name: 
Last name: 
Class Year: 
Karen Hebert
Essay Abstract: 
In 2008, the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative announced plans to build a 1500-megawatt coal-fired power plant in the small rural town of Dendron, Virginia. The proposal polarized the population of Dendron and the surrounding area, and led to a controversy that pitted economic benefits against health, black residents against white residents, and the rhetoric of political and environmental justice against the rhetoric of racial and economic justice. Despite challenges posed by racial divisions and significant resource disadvantages compared to the electric utility, the local opposition to the plant mounted an effective political and legal resistance that delayed the plant significantly. Ultimately the project folded as a result of changes on the national energy scene in 2012. By conducting interviews with locals and key players in the controversy and analyzing local newspaper archives and other primary documents, I sought to explore the factors that contributed to the deep polarization of the community and to the final outcome. In conversation with the literature of environmental justice and social movement theory, I argue that Dendron’s pre-existing racial tensions made it particularly vulnerable to corporate power, and that locals mobilized the rhetorical frame of injustice to great effect both in support of and against the proposed facility.