Pipeline Politics: The Appalling Silence of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam

Jonathan Sokolow
8 min readSep 4, 2018

It has been said that where you stand often depends on where you sit. Such is the case with the term “old plantation.”

People who want to distort the cruel history of slavery in America use the term “old plantation” to conjure false and comforting (to some) memories of happy slaves and their benevolent owners. This historic lie was perpetrated by historians in the early 20th century and beyond with the active support of Hollywood. The narrative came to be known in film and literature as the “plantation tradition,” meaning “works that look back nostalgically to the times before the Civil War, before the ‘Lost Cause’ of the Southern Confederacy was lost, as a time when an idealized, well-ordered agrarian world and its people held certain values in common.”

For African Americans and all honest students of history, however, “old plantation” means something quite different. As Paul Robeson, the great actor, singer and human rights activist put it simply when referring to Hollywood’s tradition of depicting the African American slave as “solving his problem by singing his way to glory”, the “old plantation tradition” is “very offensive to my people.”

All of which makes this little known fact about two members of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s inner circle a little more than curious: In 2010, Clark Mercer, who is now Northam’s Chief of Staff, created an oyster business on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and called it “Old Plantation Oyster Company, LLC.” Mercer’s business partner in Old Plantation was his childhood friend, a then largely unknown 29 year old aide to then State Senator Northam. The aide’s name was Matt Strickler, and the headquarters for their new business was the “country estate” of Strickler’s grandparents. Strickler now serves as Northam’s Secretary of Natural Resources, which puts him at the center of the fierce battle over two proposed massive fracked methane gas projects, the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines. More on that below.

When Mercer and Strickler created their new “Old Plantation” company, they also started a website, where they boasted that “we think you’ll love our Old Plantations.” And they had big plans, looking to grow 150,000 oysters by the spring of 2011. They even tested their “Old Plantations” at a June 2011 Democratic fundraising dinner.

But all did not go well for the “Old Plantations,” and by 2013, Mercer and Strickler failed to pay their annual LLC registration fee and the State Corporation Commission revoked their privilege to do business. But the Old Plantation Oyster Company website stayed active until as late as June 2018, when this writer started tweeting questions about the “Old Plantation.”

Mercer and Strickler were born and raised in Virginia and each have undergraduate and graduate degrees from fine universities, so they can be presumed to be aware of the history and meaning of the term “Old Plantation.” There is no reason to believe that they are adherents of the offensive “plantation tradition.” More likely, they are just plain tone deaf. In any case, the pair clearly were willing to seek profit from the fact that others might hold an idealized version of history and thus would love their “old plantations.”

But elsewhere in Virginia, plantation politics is alive and well, shining a bright and distasteful light on the pipeline battle over which Matt Strickler and Governor Northam are presiding. And the epicenter is Buckingham County, the geographic heart of the Commonwealth .

Variety Shade Landowners of Virginia is an organization of descendants of a slave owning family in Buckingham County who still own 1,400 acres from the former tobacco plantation of the same name. Unlike, perhaps, others, the Variety Shade descendants clearly are enamored of the false “plantation tradition” mythology. Indeed, their website notes the demise of their ancestors’ slave plantation and laments that “now nothing remains of this lovely plantation except in the memory of those who loved and admired it.”

It is doubtful that the slaves who worked the Variety Shades plantation either “loved” or “admired” the plantation. What we do know is that the freedman who worked on that plantation founded what is now an historic 85% African American community named Union Hill.

Several years ago, Dominion Energy bought 68 acres in Union Hill from the descendants of the Variety Shade plantation owners, at ten times the market rate. Dominion bought the land in order to build a massive compressor station to power the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Never mind that the compressor station would create respiratory and other health problems for the many elderly residents of Union Hill.

Never mind that two historic African American churches are within one mile of the proposed compressor station, an area known as the “incineration zone,” in case of an explosion.

And never mind that Governor Northam’s own 15-member Advisory Council on Environmental Justice wrote Northam on August 16, pleading with him to do something to save Union Hill. Their recommendations were unequivocal:

The Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (ACEJ) recommends that the 401 Clean Water Act certifications for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) be rescinded immediately. Likewise ACEJ recommends that the Governor direct DEQ to suspend the permitting decision for the air permit for the Buckingham compressor station pending further review of the station’s impacts on the heath and the lives of those living in close proximity. We also recommend that a review of permitting policies and procedures take place and that the governor direct the Air Pollution Control Board, DEQ, and DMME to stay all further permits for ACP and MVP to ensure that predominately poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life altering disruptions. These actions would ensure that environmental justice has meaningful influence in all current and future energy projects.

In making these recommendations, the Advisory Council was acting within its mandate, which was “to provide advice and recommendations to the Governor to improve equity in decision-making and improve public health in marginalized communities, among other goals listed in Executive Order 73 (EO 73) from October of 2017.” The Council’s letter on Union Hill and the pipelines was “our first formal set of environmental justice concerns to the Executive Branch since our inauguration.”

You would expect a Democratic governor, elected in 2017 with overwhelming African American support, to respond positively to such recommendations from his own Environmental Justice appointees.

You would be wrong.

Instead, Northam’s spokesperson dismissed the August 16 letter as a “draft”that had not been fully approved by the Council. When the Council met 12 days later and unanimously reaffirmed that their August 16 letter was indeed final, Northam’s office dodged again, telling the Washington Post that the Governor would “review the letter carefully and respond to the Council.”

Dominion Energy, on the other hand, made it crystal clear where it stood: “We strongly disagree with the Advisory Council’s recommendations.”

That all leaves Ralph Northam with a simple choice: which side is he on? Does he stand with his own appointees — and with Union Hill? Or does he stand with Dominion Energy.

Northam’s refusal to discuss Union Hill is nothing new. In fact, he has been stone cold silent on Union Hill for four years, despite the fact that the story has been told again and again in protest, in song, on film, on the front page of the Washington Post, and here, here, here, here and here, among many other places.

In marked contrast to his silence on Union Hill, in June, Northam directly addressed Dominion’s plans to build a different compressor station in Maryland (for a different project) that would be visible from George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation. Northam could have mentioned the fact that that compressor station was to be situated in Accokeek, Maryland a predominantly African American community. But he did not. Instead, he said, “If it’s going to impact their view, if it’s going to contribute to environmental detriment, then it’s something I’m concerned about.”

In any event, Northam’s statement was a game changer. One week later, Dominion surrendered and said it would move the compressor station so as not to interfere with the view from Mount Vernon.

But while Mount Vernon is now safe, Union Hill remains on the chopping block. Northam previously ignored pleas from the Virginia State Chapter of the NAACP, which in July called for a halt to all construction on both the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines and drew particular attention to the environmental racism inherent in Dominion’s planned compressor station in Union Hill.

He even stayed silent when the U.S. Justice Department came to Union Hill to investigate.

Now Northam leaves his own Advisory Council twisting in the wind.

Meanwhile, something else caught Northam’s attention on August 16 — the same day that the Advisory Council on Environmental Justice issued its plea to stop the environmental racism at Union Hill and to halt construction of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines.

That same day, another executive level council was formed to deal with a much different issue: oysters.

Yes, Oysters.

On August 16, Northam announced the formation of an “Aquaculture Working Group” “to develop consensus-based recommendations to promote the sustainable growth of Virginia’s clam and oyster aquaculture industries.” Northam even attended the working group’s first meeting — also on August 16 — pledging that “my Administration is committed to working with all stakeholders to finally resolve user conflicts.”

And who did Northam appoint to lead his new Oyster Council? Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler.

Yes, that Matt Strickler.

Apparently Strickler’s experience selling the “Old Plantations” came in handy.

In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama that would become a bedrock document of the Civil Rights Movement. Speaking to leaders who, despite good intentions, failed to speak up against injustice, King famously wrote: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Ralph Northam seems to have found the time and motivation to speak out on everything from the view from Mount Vernon to his views on oysters. Meanwhile, two of those closest to Northam, his Chief of Staff Clark Mercer and his Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler, have demonstrated not only tone deafness but little inclination to do anything for the people of Union Hill and many other front-line communities.

Thousands of people stand to have their lives, water, land and future devasted for generations to come by these proposed pipelines. All for two massive and unnecessary fracked gas pipelines that together represent more than $10 billion in new investment in fossil fuel in Virginia.

These pipelines come at exactly the wrong time. when climate change continues apace and is becoming an existential threat to our entire planet. Also to be harmed by these pipelines: Northam’s beloved Chesapeake Bay, including, by the way, the oysters.

Northam’s silence is more than just embarrassing.

His failure to listen to his own appointees is more than just insulting.

One might say his silence is appalling.

It needs to stop now.



Jonathan Sokolow

Attorney, writer and activist living in Northern Virginia