Chickahominy groundwater map
A DEQ map of expected impacts from a seven-year groundwater withdrawal special exception being proposed for the Chickahominy Power Station in Charles City County. (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality)

As Virginia tries to protect its eastern aquifers, the state Department of Environmental Quality is limiting the amount of groundwater that a controversial new natural gas plant can withdraw.

Plans to build the Chickahominy Power Station, a privately financed generation facility that is expected to produce more power than Dominion’s largest fossil-fueled power plant, have been moving forward, despite a late wave of opposition from environmentalists and some locals. Now a compromise solution with DEQ may allow the project to clear its final regulatory hurdle: state approval of its water usage.

That task isn’t as easy as it might seem. 

Chickahominy’s planned site in Charles City County sits atop the Potomac aquifer, a massive reserve of high-quality water that supplies most of Virginia east of Interstate 95. Since 2013, with data showing an unsustainable rate of withdrawal from this reserve, officials have been drastically limiting how much users can take.

Consequently, Chickahominy’s application for a standard 15-year groundwater withdrawal permit that could be renewed at the close of its term posed a dilemma for DEQ.

“The project presents an overall policy question about allowing a new groundwater withdrawal from the Potomac Aquifer that is for an industrial use and not for human consumption,” an internal DEQ memo dated April 23, 2019, stated. “Particularly, when considering the efforts to cut back groundwater from top users in Eastern Virginia to stabilize the Potomac Aquifer.”

The solution the agency landed on was a special exception for withdrawal, an infrequently used form of permission to withdraw groundwater “in unusual cases” that cannot be renewed. 

“We don’t typically issue them,” said Scott Kudlas, director of DEQ’s Office of Water Supply. But, he said, “by minimizing the term of the withdrawal, we are minimizing the impact on the aquifer overall.” 

“The issuance of a groundwater withdrawal permit, rather than a Special Exception, would allocate available groundwater supply within a multi-county area with identified groundwater resource limitations for a use other than human consumption for a permit term of up to 15 years, or longer if reissued,” a DEQ “Justification for Use of a Special Exception” noted. “DEQ does not believe the issuance of a typical groundwater withdrawal permit is consistent with the Groundwater Management Act of 1992 under these circumstances.”

Emails between officials and consultants working with the developer behind the Chickahominy project, Balico, show protracted negotiations over the term of the special exception. Ultimately, it was drafted to last seven years — shorter than Chickahominy’s 10-year ask but longer than DEQ’s original five-year proposal. 

“To obtain financing, a project will require a secure source of water for a minimum of 10 years post commercial operation,” wrote Balico director Jef Freeman in an email forwarded to DEQ by a consultant working for the company in August. “Therefore it is important that the term … be linked to this same time horizon to enable the project to be favorably viewed in the current finance marketplace, be able to secure adequate financing and ultimately proceed into construction and eventual operation.”

Freeman did not respond to a request for comment on Chickahominy’s views of the draft special exception. 

Under the conditions of that exception, which must be approved by the State Water Control Board, Chickahominy would be allowed to withdraw a maximum of 30 million gallons of groundwater per year and 3.5 million gallons per month, far less than the millions of gallons per day being drawn by the state’s largest users

The seven-year term was chosen to give the facility time to connect to a waterline being planned by New Kent County, with which Chickahominy has already negotiated to fulfill its future water needs. But, Kudlas cautioned, “there’s very little cushion in there.”

Despite DEQ’s more protectionist stance, local residents and environmentalists who attended an informational session in Charles City County Dec. 5 expressed dissatisfaction with the proposal. 

Dan Roberts, a local who opposes the Chickahominy project, said he was worried about water levels declining in wells adjacent to the facility’s property, adding that if the special exception is approved, the company should be responsible for testing those wells’ water levels.

“It’s going to affect the whole system,” he said.

Others’ objections were broader, focusing less on groundwater and more on the overall project, particularly in the context of the county’s approval of another massive (and as-yet unbuilt) natural gas plant known as C4GT and a large-scale solar installation being developed by sPower. If all three are built, Charles City will become one of the state’s largest power producers.

“One of the aesthetic values of living in this county is we don’t have the industry. .. We work outside the area and we come home to a pleasant place to live,” said Donald Charity, a lifelong county resident and a member of the Concerned Citizens of Charles City County, or C5, group opposing the project. “That’s not to say there shouldn’t be economic development … but to all of a sudden up and make these three decisions that aren’t included in the comprehensive plan is sort of suspect.”

Bonita Lewis, another resident and C5 member, complained of what she saw as the similarities between the Chickahominy project and Dominion Energy’s Buckingham compressor station in Union Hill, which ignited a contentious battle over environmental justice that has made national headlines.

“It’s the same kind of demographics,” she said, referring to the area’s large minority population. “It seems plain.”

DEQ has contested the characterization of the Chickahominy site as being an environmental justice hotspot based on comparisons of resident demographics within one-, two- and five-mile radiuses with state demographics. Notably, that approach was sharply criticized by 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Roger Gregory during an October hearing on the Union Hill compressor station.

Despite complaints, Charles City Supervisor William “Bill” Coada, who voted to approve the project on a local level in 2015-16, said he continued to be “tickled to death” with the Chickahominy Power Station.

“DEQ has deemed the air safe, the water safe,” he said. “I feel very confident in their findings.”

The public comment period for the proposed water permit will be from Dec. 26 to Feb. 14.