Virginia regulatory board denies Mountain Valley Pipeline compressor station permit

By: - December 3, 2021 2:48 pm

Workers laying the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

In a 6-1 vote, the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board on Friday voted to deny an air permit for a proposed compressor station in Pittsylvania that would be a key part of the Southgate extension of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline. 

“I have concluded that when we equitably consider — not just consider, but equitably consider — the potential negative environmental consequences of this permit on these communities, granting this permit would not promote environmental justice,” Air Board member Hope Cupit said Friday, in the second day of hearings on the Lambert Compressor Station being held in Chatham. “If the Virginia Environmental Justice Act is to mean anything, and if we as a commonwealth are going to promote environmental justice, then the time has come to reject proposals like this one.” 

The board based its denial on a determination that the permit did not meet “fair treatment” requirements under the Virginia Environmental Justice Act passed in 2020 and that the site was not suitable for a compressor station given state law and the 2020 decision in a lawsuit over the siting of a compressor station for the canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

In that case, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Virginia had erred in issuing an air permit for the compressor station planned for the predominantly Black community of Union Hill in Buckingham County.  

The decision came as a surprise in Virginia, where denials of air and water permits are rare. 

“I don’t think any of us were prepared to hope for a decision like this,” said Taylor Lilley, an attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who has spearheaded the group’s opposition to the Lambert air permit, after the decision. “It was a rare time that we got to see the board be so thorough and apply all the environmental provisions that have come down last year at once.” 

In a statement, Mountain Valley said it was “disappointed” in the board’s decision and was “evaluating its next steps.”

“The proposed facility would have been one of the most stringently controlled natural gas compressor stations in the United States,” Shawn Day, a pipeline spokesperson, wrote in an email. “The board’s decision is not supported by the factual evidence and the rigorous examination presented by MVP Southgate, an independent consultant and DEQ staff which demonstrated that the project’s advanced design would have no adverse impacts on public health.”

While the Virginia air board decision is the latest blow to Mountain Valley’s plans, however, it is not the only challenge hampering the Southgate extension. North Carolina has also twice denied the pipeline a necessary water permit, citing “unnecessary and avoidable impacts to surface waters and riparian buffers.” 

‘Stringent’ permit limits

Mountain Valley Pipeline has been hotly contested since its inception. The roughly 303-mile project is intended to carry natural gas from West Virginia into Virginia, with the 75-mile Southgate extension bringing that gas from Pittsylvania into North Carolina. 

The Lambert compressor station, sited just over three miles from the town of Chatham near two other compressor stations operated by pipeline heavyweight Transco, would be a critical part of the Southgate project. 

The consortium of natural gas companies behind the project, headed by EQM Midstream Partners, has insisted that Southgate is necessary to meet the “growing supply needs” of Dominion Energy North Carolina Gas. 

Many supporters have also pointed to local needs as a reason the project should go forward. Charles Miller, county supervisor for the district where the station would be sited, said revenues associated with the project would help Pittsylvania fund necessary services. Chatham Mayor Will Pace told the board that the county “really needs more natural gas.”  

Critics, however, have contended that profits rather than need are driving the project and say it would cause unnecessary environmental destruction, including air pollution from the Lambert station. While compressor stations allow natural gas to be transported via pipeline over long distances, they also emit air pollution, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and hazardous air pollutants like formaldehyde.

Virginia DEQ described the air permit it drafted to contain emissions from the Lambert station as historic in its strictness. Despite Lambert’s classification as a “minor” or lesser source of emissions, the department said it reviewed the proposal as if it were a major source “in nearly all respects” to ensure “the utmost reduction in emissions, the greatest protection of human health and the most public oversight/input.” 

“This permit would set the national standard of stringency that major sources would need to meet,” Paul Jenkins, a regional air permitting manager with DEQ, told the air board. Emissions limits in all categories would be set at lower levels than those associated with the canceled Buckingham compressor station in Union Hill and a recently approved Newport News Shipyard facility. 

The proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate extension. (FERC)

Mike Dowd, chief of DEQ’s Air Division, said agency models showed that beyond roughly 300 meters from the facility, air pollution effects for the sparsely populated area would be so small as to be virtually undetectable. Nor, he said, is there an existing air pollution problem: air quality in the region meets all national ambient air quality standards and is better than the state average for all pollutants.

Those models found that “the concentrations, the impacts were so low, almost miniscule once you get beyond 300 meters of the project,” he told the board. 

Disproportionate impacts

Many board members, however, remained unconvinced that there would be no impacts to the surrounding community.

Key to the discussion was DEQ’s identification of the immediate area as an environmental justice community under the 2020 Virginia Environmental Justice Act given high percentages of Black and low-income people near the site. 

DEQ analysis found that 32 percent of the population living within one mile of the compressor station would be Black, despite the fact that Black people make up 20 percent of Virginia’s overall population. Additionally, 31 percent of residents within five miles of the site were found to be low-income. 

Virginia’s Environmental Justice Act, building on federal frameworks established in the 1990s, requires the state to promote environmental justice, defined as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of every person, regardless of race, color, national origin, income, faith, or disability, regarding the development, implementation, or enforcement of any environmental law, regulation, or policy.” A particular consideration in environmental justice assessments is whether a given group of people bears “a disproportionate share” of negative environmental impacts. 

The issue has been a sore spot in Virginia, particularly in the aftermath of the Union Hill case, where the 4th Circuit admonished the state for its inadequate consideration of environmental justice issues in issuing an air permit for the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s Buckingham compressor station. 

“Environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked, and the board’s failure to consider the disproportionate impact on those closest to the compressor station resulted in a flawed analysis,” the court declared in that case. 

Board member Lornel Tompkins, a retired doctor, said she had concluded that the community “will be impacted, and negatively.” 

Studies have shown that communities of color are disproportionately affected by particulate matter. One review by George Thurston, a doctor with New York University’s School of Medicine previously analyzed the potential health impacts of the Buckingham compressor station and filed comments in the Lambert case, noted that “the very young, the poor, the very old, and persons with pre-existing health conditions, such as heart disease and asthma” are particularly susceptible to particulate matter pollution. 

“When you already have two compressor stations present and you’re adding a third, to me it’s pretty much common sense that you’re adding ‘on top of,’ Tompkins said. “Through the Environmental Justice Act, we have to look at the vulnerable populations, specific vulnerable populations, and it appears to me that they are disproportionately affected.” 

Ultimately, the board cited both the Environmental Justice Act and the Union Hill decision in its rationale for denying the permit, a legal document required by the state when the air board’s vote diverges from DEQ’s recommendation. 

Specifically, the board found the project fell short in not providing fair treatment to the community during the decision making process, while also determining that the site chosen for the compressor station was not suitable. 

Not everyone agreed: board member Richard Langford pointed out that DEQ had conducted more extensive outreach than usual regarding the project and said that the agency’s modeling indicated that “there is not a disproportionate impact.” 

“The potential increase in (nitrogen oxides) to these residents is below what can be measured,” he said. 

Lilley, with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said after the vote that the level of scrutiny the air board had applied to evaluating the impacts the project would have on the surrounding community was unusual. 

“It may be too early to say it’s a turning point, but it’s an important development for Virginia and environmental justice,” she said. “We’re not at the finish line just yet, but at least today it’s a finish line for some time.”

This story has been updated to add additional comments about the air board decision and to reflect updated vote totals from DEQ. 

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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.