With Democrats’ sweep of the General Assembly, Virginians might think the state was poised to embrace a clean energy policy — and prioritize public health, and clean air and water — over fossil fuel energy investment. Unfortunately, Virginia seems hell-bent on fast-tracking a massive expansion of fossil gas infrastructure. It’s been widely reported that Democratic governors Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam have supported two controversial pipeline projects — the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — despite a growing outcry from residents about their staggering environmental impact. Less well known are two more massive gas projects quietly being shepherded through Virginia’s regulatory system.
Two natural gas plants are under development for Charles City County, roughly 25 miles east of Richmond. Chickahominy Power Station, a merchant gas plant proposed by Balico LLC, and C4GT, developed by NOVI Energy, would collectively generate more than 2,500 megawatts (MW) of gas-generated electricity, making Charles City the fifth largest site of such power in the U.S. The electricity from both plants would be sold for investors’ profits into the PJM regional grid. While the first plant, C4GT, finalized all the required permits in 2018, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is just weeks from potentially completing the permits for Chickahominy Power. The comment period on a special exception to the Groundwater Management Act of 1992 will likely start Dec. 26.
Both gas plants are costly independent power projects, requiring an estimated $1.6 billion for Chickahominy and $1 billion for C4GT. While developers promise a significant return on these merchant power plants, there are questions about whether the plants would compete with renewables, especially when Virginia is poised to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and Northam has promised to switch entirely to clean energy by 2050. Charles City residents rightly worry they’ll be stuck with two abandoned eyesores a decade from now.
They will certainly be stuck with environmental damage if the plants are built. Given clear evidence of the damage climate change will cause to coastal Virginia, it is shocking that two plants permitted to emit more than 10 million tons of carbon equivalent every year have received so little public attention — and so much support from Virginia’s regulatory system.
In addition to the catastrophic effects on climate, these plants would use vast amounts of water in an area that already faces water scarcity. The smaller plant, C4GT, would use 2.7 billion gallons of water annually from the James River, potentially stirring up sediment across the river from Hopewell, where Kepone was dumped in the 1960s and ‘70s. The larger plant, Chickahominy, still requires a “special exception” to the Groundwater Management Act to be able to extract 30 million gallons of groundwater annually from the Potomac Aquifer. These wells are sited only a couple of miles from an enormous landfill that has a history of leaching. Air quality is also a concern. The plants will be permitted to emit 349 tons of particulate matter and 297 tons of volatile organic compounds every year, along with sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, mercury, lead and formaldehyde, among other pollutants.
While the Charles City County Board of Supervisors quietly embraced the projects for their tax revenue, residents were kept almost entirely in the dark. When a dozen residents attended the Air Pollution Control Board hearing in June, they weren’t allowed to speak because they hadn’t participated in the previous public comment period. But there was almost no community outreach about the plants — a problem acknowledged but not remedied by the board. Since June, citizens have formed an advocacy group, the Concerned Citizens of Charles City County, to oppose the plants and demand transparency from Virginia’s regulators and their local government. Earlier this month, DEQ held a public information session in Charles City attempting to allay concerns. But residents of this majority minority county rightly view the plants as an environmental justice issue, pointing out that black and poor residents in particular will face this pollution and sacrifice their water for the benefits of outside fossil fuel investors.
Indeed, Virginia is treating residents of Charles City with the same disregard they showed to residents of Union Hill, the site proposed for the Buckingham Compressor Station. It is disappointing that in a “blue state,” Virginia officials from the governor and DEQ down to the local board of supervisors have been more interested in greasing the way for fossil fuel investment than in public health and sustainable environment. Concerned Virginians should contact DEQ to demand a more transparent and honest regulation of fossil fuel investment in our state.