Air Board delays decision on Buckingham permit and plans new public comment period

By: - December 19, 2018 4:18 pm

Richard Walker and other opponents of a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County protested at a State Air Pollution Control Board meeting in December, 2018, by standing and turning their backs during a Department of Environmental Quality presentation. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Dec. 19, 2018)

The State Air Pollution Control Board approved a number of changes to Dominion Energy’s proposed permit for a compressor station in Buckingham County, but again delayed making a decision on the contentious project.

Instead, the board will hold another public hearing on documents related to the demographic makeup of Union Hill, a historically black community that activists say will have to live among the pollution, noise and risks of the compressor station, part of the company’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The board didn’t make a decision on Dominion’s permit at its Nov. 9 meeting, instead hearing from Dominion representatives on a number of changes the company was willing to do to soften the impact of the compressor station.

Part of the pitch was a $5.1 million investment in the community that isn’t written into the permit.

Dominion suggested several changes to the permit that the board approved Wednesday, including a continuous emissions monitoring system with quarterly reporting that can’t be changed without DEQ approval. The company also suggested additional monitoring for volatile organic compounds, carbon, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

Staff from the Department of Environmental Quality said at the November meeting that adding those requirements to the permit makes it one of the most stringent in the country.

It also addresses most of the issues the board has heard, said Chairman Richard Langford.

“Most of this proposal is actually in response to the comments we already got,” Langford said. He was the lone member of the board that voted against holding another public comment period.

“There’s really nothing in this document that hasn’t been already been discussed,” he said. “The things we added a moment ago were all requested by one comment or another.”

But there was no explicit mention of Union Hill, which activists are worried will bear the brunt of the impact from the compressor station.

Opponents of a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County protested outside the Pocahontas Building Wednesday ahead of a State Air Pollution Control Board meeting. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Dec. 19, 2018)

The Southern Environmental Law Center and a group of volunteers led by Lakshmi Fjord, a visiting scholar in anthropology at the University of Virginia, submitted documents after the November meeting to explain to board members why the community needed to be considered in any permit decision.

“The people of Union Hill and across Buckingham have the right to walk out of their homes and breathe healthy air,” said Harrison Wallace, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

“The mere fact that Dominion has remained set on this community of freedmen as the ideal location of their compressor station is considered by many people to be the very definition of environmental racism. With all of the facts at hand, we’re confident the air board will have no choice but to stand tall in the face of this egregious injustice by rejecting its required permit.”

The board hasn’t set a new public comment period. A decision on the permit will come after that.

DEQ analyzed the area around the compressor site several times, said Mike Dowd, director of DEQ’s air division. They used EJSCREEN, an environmental justice screening tool from the Environmental Protection Agency that evaluates census tracts for the likelihood of a project causing a disproportionate impact on the environment or public health.

Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board Member Nicole Rovner. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

But EJSCREEN doesn’t allow staff to get some of the data air board member Nicole Rovner was looking for at the November meeting.

“I’d like to know about the race, the age distribution, anything you know about the health status of the community,” she said. “I’d like to know about how those compare to the county and how those compare to the state, and I’d also like to know the density of the community as compared to the county.”

Pat Corbett, air toxics coordinator at DEQ, said the department’s numbers from EJSCREEN were informal, and couldn’t address everything Rovner asked.

“It’s a screening mechanism,” Corbett said. “It’s not — I wouldn’t really rely on it.”

DEQ staff also used a GIS-based program and found the minority population ranged from 37 to 39 percent in a one-,two-,five- and 20-mile radius of the Buckingham compressor site.

The low-income population ranged from 39 to 41 percent and 16 to 22 percent of the population in that area was 64 years old or more.

Statewide, DEQ staff noted, 37 percent of the population is considered a minority, 27 percent low income and 14 percent are 64 or older.

“The printouts DEQ provided to the board this week, without any accompanying explanation, are only estimates of the population and demographics of the area surrounding the compressor station,” SELC attorney Greg Buppert wrote in a Dec. 7 letter to Langford and DEQ Director David Paylor.

“They do not represent an actual, on-the-ground count of the Union Hill community, despite the fact that obtaining this kind of data would not be difficult.”

Fjord led an independent survey and went door-to-door in a 1.1-mile radius around the compressor station. She calculated that 83 percent of 199 residents were minorities.

The state’s findings, however, meshed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s environmental justice determination, which was based on census tract info and determined that “health impacts from compressor station emissions would be moderate because, while they would be permanent facilities, air emissions would not exceed regulatory permittable levels. As a result, no disproportionately high and adverse impacts on environmental justice populations … would be expected as a result of ACP.”

FERC did decide that the area around the Buckingham station would be considered an environmental justice area because of income, but not race.

The SELC thinks that methodology was flawed, and was hoping the board would consider that when making a decision on the permit.

“DEQ used screening tools that are designed to give regulators and the public a preliminary, approximate understanding of who might be affected by a new source of
industrial pollution,” Buppert wrote.

“But for a small community like Union Hill, those tools are not capable of providing an accurate picture of who actually lives within a one- or two-mile radius of the facility. Instead, they can only generate estimates based on census data for larger areas.”

The state permitting process is continuing despite several setbacks for the ACP. Last week, a federal court vacated the permit that allows the pipeline to run across the Appalachian Scenic Trail.

Earlier this month, the court also issued a stay of Dominion’s permit that allows the company to harm or kill to some endangered species during construction. The company voluntarily suspended construction on the entire 600-mile pipeline the same day.



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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.