Army Corps of Engineers issues wetlands permit for massive Wegmans distribution center

By: - July 6, 2021 12:02 am

Opponents of a water permit for a Wegmans distribution center in Hanover at an April 30 news conference announcing a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

The Army Corps of Engineers has signed off on the construction of a massive Wegmans distribution facility on a site containing protected wetlands in Hanover County, angering residents who have been fighting the project for several years.

Neighbors took particular umbrage at the corps’ decision late last month to issue the wetlands permit at the same time it released a study finding that the project would not have a significant environmental impact on the area — an approach they say precluded the review from informing the permitting decision.

“(It) has no point if you’re doing it while you issue a permit, because you cannot incorporate any information that comes forward into the permit if you’re doing them simultaneously,” said Chris French, head of the Hanover County NAACP’s Environmental Justice Committee. 

The June 17 permit from the corps will allow Wegmans to build a 1.7 million square foot distribution facility on 219 acres between Ashcake Road and Sliding Hill Road in Hanover. The project will result in roughly 14 acres of wetlands being lost or otherwise impacted.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the Army Corps of Engineers must review any significant activities involving the addition of dredged or fill material into waters under federal jurisdiction, including wetlands. In Virginia the state also must sign off on such activities, which are handled through a process known as a joint permit application. Virginia’s State Water Control Board approved a state permit for Wegmans in March.

The corps also undertook an environmental assessment required by the National Environmental Policy Act to determine “whether or not a federal action has the potential to cause significant environmental effects.” If the corps determines that the action is likely to cause significant impacts, it must prepare the more rigorous environmental impact statement. 

The assessment issued by the corps this June along with the permit found the Wegmans project “will not have a significant impact on the quality of the human environment.”

Rod Morgan, a Hanover resident who founded a group called Protect Hanover to oppose the Wegmans plans, said neighbors “were a little taken aback on the timing, because we feel like the corps really rushed it through.” 

Breeana Harris, deputy chief of public affairs for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk district, said in an email that once the Corps has assessed public input and completed its evaluation, “it is typical for us to finalize the environmental assessment, statement of findings and permit decision as a single document.” 

First announced by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration in December 2019, the Wegmans facility was cast as a major economic development win, generating $175 million in investment and 700 full-time jobs. 

The project quickly drew backlash from many residents of the area, however. 

Wetlands impacts were one key point of contention, with opponents saying corps surveys have underestimated the extent of wetlands on the site. Much of the skepticism stems from an initial survey conducted by the corps in October 2019 that identified about 17 acres of wetlands on the site; public complaints led to another round of fieldwork that found just under 30 acres — a 76 percent increase. 

Environmental justice was also a flashpoint. The Brown Grove community where the distribution center is to be built traces its history to a freedwoman named Caroline Morris whose descendants still live in the area around the Brown Grove Baptist Church. Residents say the Wegmans project is just another in a long string of detrimental land use decisions, from the routing of Interstate 95 through the community to the siting of the municipal airport and a cement plant. 

“We have dealt with this too much,” church deacon Kenneth Spurlock said during a press conference in May. “We feel we have paid our dues.” 

This June, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ State Review Board voted to recommend that a Brown Grove residential rural historic district be added to the National Register of Historic Places. The department has also determined Brown Grove Baptist Church is eligible for listing in both the national register and the Virginia Landmark Register. 

The Army Corps has previously said the Wegmans project “will not affect the church” and that a “viewshed analysis supports that the project cannot be seen from the church.” Residents, however, say impacts from noise, lights and heavy traffic traveling by the church on Ashcake Road will significantly affect the church and the surrounding community.

Despite the opposition, the Virginia State Water Control Board in March narrowly approved a state water permit for the project on a 4-3 vote. 

The NEPA review that culminated in the Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental assessment came under discussion numerous times during that meeting

Although Tom Walker, chief of the regulatory branch of the corps’ Norfolk district, told the board the corps had been conducting NEPA review throughout its permit review and was “not just starting that process,” member James Lofton at one point said he had “just learned today that there is an entire NEPA process underway.” 

“It seems to me that we’ve — we’ve gotten the process backwards,” he said. “It’s that a NEPA process needs to go first.” 

Other members emphasized the typical length of NEPA review, with member Timothy Hayes saying it “takes a lot longer than it took the Lord to create the world,” and member Lou Ann Wallace highlighting one two-year review underway in Southwest Virginia. 

“I don’t think that this is going to be anything that’s going to be very sudden that’s going to happen in this community,” she said. 

French said Hanover County NAACP is planning to formally ask the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene in the case and review the Corps’ permit issuance, although he acknowledged such intervention is “rarely ever done.” 

“I think it’s a long shot for anybody who’s ever made the request, but given the egregious actions by the Corps of Engineers as well as the state of Virginia in issuing state and federal permits, we think it is a viable option to correct obvious wrongs, especially since there are substantial environmental justice issues that have not been adequately addressed by any government institution to date,” he said. 

Both Hanover NAACP and Protect Hanover are also challenging the State Water Control Board permit in Richmond Circuit Court.

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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. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]