Air board delays Buckingham compressor station permit decision

By: - November 9, 2018 5:39 pm

A rendering of the compressor station proposed for rural Buckingham County as part of Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Image via Buckingham County Board of Supervisors)

After two days of meetings this week, the State Air Pollution Control Board has delayed until December a decision on a permit for a compressor station in Buckingham County that’s part of Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The board’s decision today followed a day of public comment, where a few hundred people voiced their opinion on the compressor station, which would help move natural gas through the controversial 600-mile pipeline planned to be built from West Virginia, through Virginia and into North Carolina.

It’s one of three stations along the route, with the others already under construction in West Virginia and North Carolina.

Board member Ignacia Moreno, who made the motion to defer a decision, said an extra month gives the board time to consider information they received this week.

“I have some reluctance in postponing in large part because I don’t know if we’re going to learn anything much new, although maybe we will get some new information in this period of time and maybe board members can think about things,” board member Sam Bleicher said.

Department of Environmental Quality staff told the board they looked at permits from compressor stations from all over the country and implemented the “most stringent” caps on emissions, required frequent inspection and included environmental justice requirements, which can be vague in permitting processes.

Air board members Rebecca Rubin and Nicole Rovner had concerns about whether the permit actually addresses environmental justice issues, like protecting Union Hill, the historically black community where the station is proposed to be built. 

“One of the critical issues when contemplating environmental justice is that equality and equity are two different concepts,” Rubin said. So that which may be appear to be equal and even handed … nonetheless may be inequitable if a population begins at a disadvantage.”

The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the board should deny the permit.

“Virginia should carefully consider the true effects and environmental justice impacts for every project,” said Kate Addleson, the Virginia Sierra Club director. “Buckingham residents should not have to bear the brunt of the awful effects and pollution from this unnecessary industrial site.”

Del. Jennifer Caroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, speaks at a rally ahead of the state air board meeting Thursday on a contentious compressor station planned for Buckingham County as part of Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline . (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the station would add “thousands of pounds of new pollution to the James River and Chesapeake Bay by pumping massive amounts of nitrogen oxide into the air, which falls back onto the land and water” in addition to posing risks to nearby residents.

Union Hill is a historically black area that traces its roots to before the Civil War, when ancestors of some of the current residents were slaves on the former plantation that is part of the compressor station site.

Activists who have opposed placing the 54,000-horsepower station in the community are concerned about the potential health impacts it could have on residents.

“Nearby residents will be exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution and noise …  not to mention the constant threat that it could malfunction and explode, as has been the case with similar compressor stations in other states,” the Virginia League of Conservation Voters said in a statement.

The group’s deputy director, Lee Francis, said “Dominion floundered” when asked by the board to explain why the pipeline and the compressor station are needed.

“They simply couldn’t answer that very basic, elementary question,” he said.

“The truth is this pipeline is not necessary for power generation in Virginia. Still, Dominion expects its captive ratepayers to foot the bill while Virginians along the route suffer from the unprecedented environmental impacts that would accompany this pointless pipeline. Nowhere would these be more hard-felt than in Union Hill.”

Dominion Energy spokesman Aaron Ruby could not immediately be reached about the board’s decision.

However, Ruby told CBS19 in Charlottesville that the company expects to get the permit.

“The compressor station was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after four years of exhaustive review and was unanimously approved by the Buckingham Board of Supervisors after more than a year of public review and participation,” Ruby said, adding that the company plans to use extensive emissions controls.

‘Everyone’s health here is protected’

Protesters showed up in “We are all Union Hill” T-shirts and routinely stood up and turned their backs to the board as they received presentations from DEQ staff and Dominion executives.

DEQ staff said they designed technical aspects of the permit to be strict enough to protect public health.

Staff calculated the allowable amount of emissions per year by using a low short-term emissions number, which will control how much gas the station can release annually.

The state is also requiring Dominion to use a vent-gas reduction system at the compressor station that will help limit the number of venting events needed throughout the year — called “blowdowns.”

“There are some badly controlled compressor stations out there but this isn’t one of them,” said Mike Dowd, director DEQ’s air division.

In addition to the state’s permit requirements, the Buckingham County compressor station has to abide by 41 conditions set by the local Board of Supervisors when Dominion asked for zoning permission to build in the county. The county’s conditions address noise, traffic and lighting.

There are certain aspects that DEQ doesn’t have the authority to address, Dowd said, including the location of the station. That is ultimately a zoning issue that local boards have to take up.

Other concerns, like those related to health, are addressed with the tight limits on emissions and other permit requirements, Dowd said. He said DEQ staff believes the permit is  the strictest for any compressor station in the nation.

“Everyone’s health here is protected,” Dowd told the board, before he was interrupted by a protester yelling from the audience: “Why are you lying?”

“Under the extent of the law,” Dowd finished.

Dominion executives also highlighted steps the company voluntarily took to mitigate the impacts the station would have on the community, including a $5 million investment in Buckingham’s emergency services and a new community center that was made public the night before the permit was up for a public hearing.

Carlos Brown, vice president and general counsel at Dominion, said that money will be “transformative” for Buckingham and made clear the company didn’t pick Union Hill for any other reason than logistics. It’s at the point where the ACP can connect to the pre-existing Transco pipeline.

“There was no discriminatory intent in regards to the placement of this station,” he said.

DEQ is working on codifying more definitions and requirements around environmental justice — which broadly aims to ensure that vulnerable populations are afforded the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards —  Dowd said after the meeting, but the concept is “still evolving.”

“We listened, we understand the concerns,” he said. “But we have to follow the law and science.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.