Did briefing on proposed Charles City gas plant ‘come close enough’ to statutory requirements?

By: - June 19, 2019 11:09 pm

Regulators from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality raised questions about whether the company seeking an air permit to build a massive gas plant in Charles City County met statutory requirements for informing the public of the project’s impacts, emails from the agency show.

The permit for the 1,650-megawatt plant, being developed by Chickahominy Power, LLC., heads to the State Air Pollution Control Board Friday. If built, the plant would edge out Dominion Energy’s Chesterfield Power Station for the claim to the largest fossil fuel-fired plant in Virginia.

On May 17, 2017, Chickahominy, a subsidiary of Balico, LLC, held an informational briefing on plans to build the plant on 185 acres in Charles City. The site is located next to Dominion Energy’s Chickahominy substation and traversed by a Virginia Natural Gas pipeline.

Virginia administrative code requires that an informational briefing be held on any new stationary source of air pollution between 30 and 60 days after notice of the project is published in a newspaper in the region. According to the statute, at this briefing, the project applicant “shall inform the public about the operation and air quality impact of the source” and answer any related questions.

“At a minimum,” it says, “the applicant shall provide information on and answer questions about (i) specific pollutants and the total quantity of each which the applicant estimates will be emitted and (ii) the control technology proposed to be used at the time.”

But emails from members of DEQ’s Air Division indicate that Chickahominy Power, LLC may have fallen short of these requirements.

The emails were obtained as part of a Freedom of Information Act request by Mary Finley-Brook, a University of Richmond professor who has openly opposed the Chickahominy project and criticized the lack of public awareness of the proposed plant.

In a summary of the May 17, 2017, briefing sent to six other DEQ staff members the day after, air permit writer Alison Sinclair noted that the presentation consisted of “only about four PowerPoint slides detailing the name of the company, where the project is located, that the facility includes three natural gas-fired turbines, that the company will have to apply [best available control technology], and what the project’s timeline looks like (they hope to get a draft permit by January). That’s it.”

A subsequent email from Sinclair explained that there was “no mention of specific pollutants, quantities, or controls by the consultant.”

One citizen who attended the briefing, Sinclair said, “was a bit taken aback by the brevity and lack of content of the presentation.”

Air permit coordinator Stanley Faggert responded: “It’s almost like they didn’t meet the regulatory requirements for their briefing.”

“However,” he added, the statute “could be interpreted to gives [sic] us the ability to say they came close enough.”

The emails show DEQ staff attempting to conduct damage control at the briefing.

“I spoke up and briefly explained what was proposed, although I couldn’t remember the actual proposed quantities of emissions,” Sinclair wrote. In an email to other DEQ officials a year later, she described herself and another staffer as having had to “cover” for the applicant “when the one citizen that showed up had many questions that the representatives could not answer.”

DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn said the department “believes the regulatory requirements for an informational briefing conducted in 2017 by Balico were satisfied.”

“While the presentation by Balico’s consultant was brief, the consultant and DEQ staff answered the questions asked by the community,” she said.

Asked how that conclusion was in line with the account of the meeting described in its staffers’ emails, Regn said the requirements were “satisfied based on the combination of the information in the applicant’s public briefing notice, the applicant’s public presentation and the participation of DEQ staff.” She added that “the one citizen in attendance indicated satisfaction with the answers to his questions and the information provided” and subsequently had a one-on-one meeting with DEQ officials.

Besides the May 17 meeting, the project was discussed in public meetings of the Charles City County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors while they were considering granting a special use permit to the facility. Only one person offered a comment in four public hearings held on the subject.

The State Corporation Commission also reviewed the plan and issued a certificate of public convenience and necessity on May 8, 2018.

In 2018, concerned about the amount of time that had passed between the original permit application and a revised application that the department was waiting to receive, Sinclair also wrote the project’s engineer to say that “another Information Briefing should be held according to the requirements of 9 VAC 5-80-1775.C to let the public know of the changes to the original application.” The engineer requested that DEQ hold off on requiring another hearing until it received the revised application.

Regn said that a second briefing was never held because the revised application “was more stringent than the original proposal,” including a turbine that produced fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

The department subsequently held a public hearing and public comment period for the draft permit, both of which are also mandated by state law.

“We believe all regulatory requirements regarding public information have been met,” Regn said.

Jef Freeman, director of development for Balico, said he “disagreed completely” with the idea that the briefing had not met state standards and called a “retrospective” characterization of the events “unfair.”

“I think it did meet the regulatory requirements when the application was first filed, and since then there have been other public outreach opportunities,” he said.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include additional comments from DEQ received Thursday morning.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.