As it takes up another contentious permit, air board wrestles with public engagement

By: - April 29, 2021 5:00 am

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

Just months after an eight-hour meeting to consider a controversial air permit for the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board is readying itself for another marathon session to consider granting an air permit to a compressor station that would be built in Chatham as part of a planned offshoot of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. 

“This permit may have received as many as 400 comments,” Chair Roy Hoagland told the board at its April 23 meeting. “So take a guess: If you have 50 percent of them, that’s 200 people who would have an opportunity to speak up to three minutes apiece.” 

Consideration of the so-called Lambert compressor station comes as the air board, smarting from a federal judicial rebuke over its issuance of a permit to the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s Union Hill compressor station, has been working to revamp how it approaches public engagement. 

In the wake of yet another charged permit decision in June 2019, one related to the proposed Chickahominy Power Station in Charles City County, the board convened an ad hoc Committee on Public Engagement. 

“The same old, same old we know doesn’t work,” Hoagland told the Mercury over the summer. “Same old, same old may be legal, but it’s not sufficient.” 

Now, the committee’s work may face its first big test as the Lambert compressor station permit is scheduled to come before the citizen body this June. 

Officials expect the meeting where the board will render its decision of whether or not to grant the project an air permit to be heated. 

Mountain Valley Pipeline has been contested by environmental groups and local landowners alike since its inception. 

Opponents say the 303-mile natural gas pipeline through Southwest Virginia is not only unnecessary as the state and nation move away from fossil fuels but environmentally destructive. Erosion and sedimentation problems have plagued the pipeline’s construction, leading Virginia to eventually collect $2.15 million in fines from developers. And courts have repeatedly stripped the pipeline of necessary permits, citing inadequacies in agency approvals. 

Mountain Valley, however, has continued to argue that natural gas remains essential, especially with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s cancellation. 

“Everyone expects to be able to heat their homes in the winter and cool them in the summer,” said Thomas Karam, chair and CEO of pipeline lead developer Equitrans Midstream, during an investor call in January. “Access and reliability must be the first priority, and we firmly believe natural gas and natural gas infrastructure plays a long-term integral role in delivering this reliability.” 

At the same time the developers have moved forward with plans to construct a 75-mile offshoot from the main pipeline known as the Southgate extension, which would stretch from Pittsylvania County south into North Carolina. 

That project too has been fraught with difficulties. In August North Carolina denied Southgate a water quality certification needed for the pipeline to be built in that state. While a federal appeals court overturned the decision and asked state officials to provide further explanation, the judges affirmed that North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality had the authority to deny Mountain Valley the permit. An agency spokesperson subsequently told North Carolina Policy Watch that the ruling “vindicates” officials’ concerns about the Southgate extension. 


A ‘highly visible’ permit decision

In Virginia, officials at the Department of Environmental Quality and the Air Pollution Control Board will face their first major decision on the Southgate project this June: whether to grant an air permit for the two-turbine Lambert compressor station to be built in Chatham, less than a mile from an existing compressor station on the Transco pipeline. 

The issue has triggered a flood of comments, both filed in written form with DEQ and made during a public hearing in Salem in February. In response to the outpouring, DEQ subsequently elevated the question to the air board to make a final decision, a step taken if 25 or more members of the public petition for board review or the director opts to do so.  

On Friday, the upcoming decision, which is likely to occur June 25, sparked extended discussion by the board about what role public comments should play in members’ deliberations. 

“There is an entire public participation process outside of the actual board meeting. And what is actually happening at the board meeting when the decision is being made is the opportunity for those people who participated previously to comment to the board on the summary that has been provided to the board,” said Cindy Berndt, director of regulatory affairs for DEQ.

“It’s not a new hearing. It’s not an opportunity for any new information. It’s only an opportunity for people to articulate that the staff has or has not adequately addressed their summary of comments,” she continued. “You’re not trying to have a new public hearing at a board meeting.”

Several members, including Hoagland, Kajal Kapur and Staci Rijal, took issue with the interpretation. 

“The public comments during the board meetings are very important,” said Kapur. “Otherwise why are we even giving them a chance to speak their minds if we are not going to consider those comments?”

Hoagland said the question was “not simply public comment, it’s also public access to our decision-making.” 

“That is equally important,” he said. “And I think that’s part of the transparency concerns we have heard from the public.” 

But how best to make meetings more accessible to the public, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on, continued to cause disagreements among the board. The June 25 meeting to consider the Lambert compressor station permit would be a “highly visible” one, they agreed, but whether it should be extended to two days to allow people who work during the week to weigh in on a Saturday prompted mixed reactions, as did moving consideration of the Lambert permit to the evening. 

Board member Richard Langford called the prospect of moving public comment to Saturday “a two-edged sword,” noting that businesses, regulated entities and environmental groups don’t typically work on weekends.

“If you move everything to Saturday, you help some people but disadvantage others,” he said. “If you do it on Friday, it’s the opposite.” 

The drive to increase public engagement has sparked some concern from business. On April 22 the Virginia Manufacturers Association, which represents 6,000 manufacturers across the state, sent a letter to the air board asking to participate in the public engagement committee’s work, warning the board its authority was limited and urging a “balanced” approach to engagement that also considers efficiency. 

“We want to point out to you that engagement burdens will cost money and time, and this will directly impact the Virginia economy,” Liz Williamson, an attorney with Williams Mullen representing the VMA, told the board Friday. 

Rijal, however, described the current system where permit considerations are generally made during meetings held during the work week that often begin during the workday creates “a very unbalanced burden of engagement.” 

Representatives of businesses and environmental groups are paid for their time, she said. “If a public person really wants to engage, they’re taking off leave. … So I do think you do kind of have to balance out that the burden of engagement is extraordinarily high for the public compared to those other stakeholders.”

While the board made no decision Friday to extend the June 25 meeting, Hoagland pledged to work with DEQ to bring forward a proposal for either a two-day meeting or a rejiggering of the hours during which consideration of the Lambert permit would be held. 

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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.