Temporary air pollution exception for data centers sparks opposition in Northern Virginia

Industry advocate says short-term suspension of emissions requirements would maintain integrity of internet, grid reliability

By: - February 28, 2023 12:02 am

Kyle Hart, Mid-Atlantic field representative with the National Parks Conservation Association, speaks at a rally ahead of a public hearing on granting a variance to Data Centers to use generators. (Charlie Paullin/The Mercury)

At a public hearing in Woodbridge Monday, fourth grader Myles Grove told the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality he was concerned about pollution that could result from the state giving data centers a temporary exception from air quality rules to run backup generators.

“Protect our air, please,” he urged officials.

The public hearing was the culmination of a 30-day comment period on DEQ’s proposal to issue what’s known as a variance for data centers located in the counties of Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William. 

The variance would suspend short-term emission requirements for roughly 150 data centers to allow them to use generators to power their operations between mid-March and July 31 if regional grid operator PJM issues a warning about strain on the power transmission system, the network of high-voltage power lines that transport electricity from where it is generated to smaller regional substations. 

DEQ spokesman Aaron Proctor previously said the agency believes “the variance’s impact to air quality, if any, would be marginal.”

But on Monday, dozens of residents and advocacy groups opposed the short-term loosening of the air pollution rules, warning of health, environmental and noise impacts.

“Virginia must use this permit variance from DEQ as a wake-up call on data centers,” said Kyle Hart with the National Parks Conservation Association.

Morgan Butler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, faulted DEQ for not  providing information about “specific pollutants and the total quantity of each that may be emitted” as well as “the type and quantity of any fuels to be used” under the variance, despite state public notice requirements

“DEQ was legally required to include that information in the public notice for the proposal, and it did not,” Butler said.

Attendees at public hearing on a variance to allow data centers to use generators. (Charlie Paullin/The Mercury)

Other speakers voiced concerns about emissions from generators, including nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and carbon monoxide.

Prince William resident Neil Kelley said a study from the American Medical Association found long-term exposure to particulate matter is associated with increased risk of heart issues in California.

“And guess what,” said Kelley, “they want to limit the exposure.”

Josh Levi, president of the industry group Data Center Coalition, was one of two speakers in favor of the variance.

“This variance would allow data centers to continue to serve their customers, maintain the integrity of the internet and alleviate demand on the electric grid during periods of acute stress, if necessary, through the use of onsite emergency backup generators,” Levi said. 

Data centers were a significant topic of debate during the 2023 General Assembly session, which ended Saturday. Legislators killed bills to increase stormwater regulations for data centers in Prince William County and study the impacts of further development and passed legislation to set up a data center tax exemption and grant fund.

“When it comes to a decision that I have to make as a legislator, in terms of what is more important, money or protecting the environment, I will 100% of the time default to protecting the environment in this case” said Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, during one hearing on data center bills.

Data center development has become an increasingly contentious issue in Northern Virginia, which is home to the world’s largest concentration of such facilities. A recent proposal to expand the area where data centers can be built in Prince William triggered a major local fight over land use, and electric utility Dominion Energy has warned about transmission shortfalls to supply the electricity-intensive centers in the region.    

Despite those tensions, Gov. Glenn Youngkin this January announced the state could provide up to $140 million in incentives to Amazon Web Services for an expected $35 billion investment in data center expansion.

“Virginia will continue to encourage the development of this new generation of data center campuses across multiple regions of the Commonwealth,” Youngkin said in a statement. “These areas offer robust utility infrastructure, lower costs, great livability, and highly educated workforces and will benefit from the associated economic development and increased tax base, assisting the schools and providing services to the community.”

DEQ will accept public comments through March 14 and issue a decision after compiling them, which could take “a while,” said Karen Sabasteanski, policy analyst at DEQ.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.