Environmental groups are opposing a pair of natural gas power plants planned for Charles City County. (Tom Burkett/ River Healers)

By Mary Finley-Brook

I filed a records request with the State Corporation Commission to find out who owns the 1,600 megawatt Chickahominy Power Station under permitting in the majority-minority county of Charles City.

As a consumer on the PJM Interconnection electricity grid, I will help pay for this $1.6 billion dollar gas plant, in which will developers will recoup their investment through sales to the grid.

I uncovered through my request that although I am a customer tied to this facility, I would not be allowed basic information. Balico LLC’s Chickahominy Power application with the SCC redacts the names of the project’s backers and several executives behind it, the plant’s combustion turbines and the natural gas hookup. These facts are hidden in SCC public records due to a 2017 confidentiality request.

“The redacted versions are confidential and only parties to the case who signed a confidentiality agreement have access to confidential documents,” an SCC spokesman told me.  “The public versions are the same document with the confidential material excluded or obscured by ‘blacking out’ those portions.”

Why should the SCC privilege a non-transparent request for secrecy by an unregulated firm over the public’s right to know and who would benefit?

The air permitting process raised questions about whether the company met state regulations. A DEQ permit writer stepped out of a regulatory role to answer public questions when unprepared permit applicant Balico, LLC, did not know basic required information about pollution.

This DEQ staff member questioned colleagues, as shown in FOIA documents, as to whether Balico complied with statutory requirements. At the meeting for county residents, DEQ staff could only report general information, so this permit writer argued the company should be required to hold new public informational sessions if they came back with permit revisions, as they did in November 2018. DEQ later decided to skip these new sessions to inform the public,

Chickahominy Power Station is a large facility by national standards. It is unique also due to the fact that the proposed C4GT gas power plant (1,050 MW) is slated for construction only 1.1 mile away. More than a dozen citizens testified to the State Air Pollution Control Board in June (meeting transcript at Virginia.DEQ.gov) how state and industry procedures in the permitting process blocked public participation. In fact 11 concerned residents from Charles City County were blocked from giving testimony to the air board because they were not aware of the plant by a prior written deadline. 

The Air Board approved (5-1) an air permit allowing pounds of hazardous air pollutants to harm people of color — African-American and Native American populations make up the majority of the population proximate to this gas plant — who already live with toxic exposures from the Roxbury Industrial Corridor and a large Waste Management landfill.

Environmental racism similarly occurred nine months prior with the approval of the Buckingham Compressor Station in a historic community called Union Hill. There is now a lawsuit pending in the 4th Circuit Court, as Friends of Buckingham and Chesapeake Bay Foundation sued the air board for failing to consider all aspects of site suitability under state law when it granted Atlantic Coast Pipeline (Dominion Energy) a permit to emit certain air pollutants. One of those aspects is that particulate matter emitted by the compressor station will disproportionately harm African Americans living in Union Hill. 

Given this track record, how can Charles City County residents ensure DEQ and state regulators will protect their water supply? A newly issued draft water permit contains a mitigation contract that appears to favor industry: it lacks clear steps to assure resolution when local residents charge the gas company with lowering water levels in their wells after DEQ’s permit allows them to draw millions of gallons of water (see Concerned Citizens of Charles City County).

Gas expert Thomas Hadwin questions the need for the plant and informed local residents he doubts it will bring economic benefit to Charles City, especially after the local tax credits and county government’s incentives, which make local citizens help pay for plant infrastructure like roads and water systems. Meanwhile the power station will produce 6.5 million tons of greenhouse gases annually just as Gov. Ralph Northam set a state 100% carbon-free energy target of 2050. Construction of the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines and permitting the Southside Expansion and Southeastern Trail Expansion pipelines and Chickahominy and C4GT gas plants undermines these energy goals.

Now it will be the job of Dominion’s ex-PR director Grant Neely to explain how Gov. Northam can be a climate leader and still champion fracked gas infrastructure that will drive more climate change from methane leaks than his renewable energy plans would mitigate?

Mary Finley-Brook is an associate professor of geography and the environment at the University of Richmond and a former member of the Virginia Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative.