Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board is waiting a month to act on a proposed permit for a natural gas compressor station to serve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Buckingham County because of unresolved concerns about whether it would have a “disproportionate impact” on the majority-black community of Union Hill.
After a day and a half of public meetings on the proposed air pollution permit, the regulatory board voted unanimously Friday to delay its decision until Dec. 10.
Several board members made clear their discomfort with the state’s approach to concerns about environmental justice because of the 55,000-horsepower compressor station’s proximity to Union Hill and the adjacent neighborhoods of Union Grove and Shelton Store, whose residents are predominantly African-American.
“I do think we have a duty to consider disproportionate impact,” said Nicole Rovner, a board member from Richmond, before the vote to delay action on the permit.
Other board members also wanted more information about the suitability of the location of the compressor station, proposed on the site of a former plantation whose freed slaves founded the adjacent community after the Civil War.
“The question is whether there’s a disproportionate impact and whether there’s a better location for the facility,” said Samuel Bleicher, a Georgetown University law professor who lives in Arlington County.
The board’s decision dismayed but did not dishearten officials with Dominion Energy, the lead developer of the $7 billion natural gas pipeline it has federal permission to build 600 miles from West Virginia, through Virginia, to southeastern North Carolina.
“While we’re disappointed with the delay, we’re confident that after considering the full public record in support of this permit the Board will approve it,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said in a statement after the vote.
The delay buoyed opponents of the project, who challenged the adequacy of the draft permit.
“I would hope that at long last that the board is actually listening to the things we have to say,” said Chad Oba, leader of Friends of Buckingham and a resident of Woods Road on the other side of state Route 56 from Union Hill and the compressor station site.
Oba contends the state did not adequately involve the community in the permitting process until after the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam in mid-August that urged him to suspend the air permitting process “pending further review of the station’s impacts on the health and quality of life of those living in close proximity.”
The council also recommended that Northam delay all state permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, proposed through Southwest Virginia to Pittsylvania County, until the state can “ensure that predominantly poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life-altering disruptions.”
State environmental regulators said they would protect all residents equally because of limits in nitrogen oxide and other pollutants that they say are more stringent than any other compressor station air permit in the country.
“If all the standards are being met, there is no disproportionate impact,” said Michael Dowd, director of the air and renewable energy division of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
But Rebecca Rubin, an environmental consultant from Fredericksburg, noted that an even-handed approach to pollution limits “does not mean it’s equitable.”
Dowd strongly disputed suggestions that the state agency could reject the permit based on the suitability of the 58-acre site next to Union Hill. He said site suitability is the jurisdiction of the Buckingham Board of Supervisors, which approved a special-use permit for the project in January 2017.
“We have to base our authority here as it applies to air quality,” Dowd said.
Carlos Brown, senior vice president and general counsel at Dominion, assured the state board that “there was no discriminatory intent with regard to placement of the facility,” a decision the company said it made because of the property’s availability and location next to the existing Williams-Transco interstate natural gas pipeline.
Brown, an African-American lawyer, outlined the $5.1 million package Dominion has pledged for improvements in the community, based on “successful completion” of the pipeline.
He said he negotiated the proposed package — including creation of a full-time rescue squad, expansion of emergency 911 service and construction of a community center — with residents of the community after years of discussion, but Oba said she was left out of all but one meeting.
“If this permit is adopted, you will set a standard in Virginia that all others will follow,” Brown said as dozens of protesters stood silently with their backs turned to him and other Dominion speakers.
The permit sets limits on pollution — nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and toxic chemicals.
But it would not limit or monitor emissions of methane, a major source of pollution attributed to climate change, or air pollution from the pipeline itself. Dowd said the agency is leading a new study at the governor’s direction to determine how the state can regulate methane emissions from compressor stations, pipelines, landfills and other sources.
The draft permit would require use of “best available control technology” that includes a system to reduce the venting of natural gas during shutdowns from 100 to 10 times a year and cap gas emissions during annual testing of the station’s emergency systems.
At Friday’s meeting, Dominion also promised to install equipment for continuous monitoring of emissions from the station’s four gas-fired turbines and pay for an additional state air quality monitoring station off site.
“It is the gold standard for how compressor stations should be permitted and operated,” Ruby said.
But opponents questioned the independence of state regulators in their analysis.
“It seems to me that DEQ is speaking for Dominion,” Oba said.