The proposed fracked gas Chickahominy Power Station, which if built would not only be the largest fossil fuel plant in Virginia but would rank amongst the largest in the country, would emit 6.5 million tons of carbon dioxide and hundreds of tons of toxic chemicals into surrounding communities. The power station was up for a crucial vote at last Friday’s Air Pollution Control Board Meeting.
Leading up to the meeting, there were multiple issues at play. First is the environmental justice component of the plant’s placement. Around 60% of the immediate surrounding community consists of historically underrepresented minority groups. The act of placing fossil fuel infrastructure projects (be it pipelines, refineries, or power generators) in the midst of low-income frontline communities is a notorious tactic employed by the oil and gas industry. Industry assumes those communities will be least able to fight back or seek recourse for damages done by plants. This is further evidenced by the fact that another gas plant, the C4GT power station, is slated for a site just 1.1 miles from the Chickahominy Power Station, and the project site is adjacent to an existing Dominion substation and near a landfill. In many cities, zoning laws institutionalize this environmental racism.
Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), tasked with reviewing the air permit application for the project, opened a public comment period from January 31 to March 20, and local residents were supposedly given an opportunity to submit comments in opposition to the project. However, the DEQ, known for closely aligning with industry, barely publicized the comment period -- they knew the backlash the plant would garner because it spews so many toxic emissions into the air. In the end, advocates and opponents altogether submitted just over 100 comments. The DEQ recommended that the Air Board approve the permit.
Community members didn’t catch wind of these shenanigans until after the public comment period had officially ended. But a petition brought them out in full force. Over 200 local residents signed the petition - more than twice the number of total comments received during the public comment period. Signers of the petition attested that, had they been aware of the public comment period, they would have submitted statements in opposition to the plant. The petition also asked that the Air Board deny the permit based on the pollution-related health threats the project would cause to the surrounding community, as well as the power station site being in close proximity to other polluting facilities, raising concerns about property devaluation. Signatures were only from people living within a 20-mile radius of the plant, and most who signed lived within 5 miles.
At the Air Board meeting, where local activists called for a permit denial (at least until a new comment period with meaningful involvement from the community could happen), community members were barred from speaking unless they had submitted a statement during the public comment period. Since most in attendance had found out about the project only days earlier and thus did not know about the comment period, they were not allowed to speak. When the Board was asked to make an exception for impacted community members who did not know about the comment period previously, they declined. The Board asked Balico, the project’s owners, if they would agree to extend the statutory 90-day timeframe after the comment period ends in which the Board must approve or deny the permit. Balico declined the extension, despite knowing the public participation process had been botched. They said a delay “would kill the project.” Once again, those most impacted by the project were excluded from the process of its approval to the benefit of the industry applicant.
The Air Board acknowledged that outreach to the surrounding community was flawed, especially to the African American community. Even so, the Board declined to make an extension that would reopen the comment period for the Chickahominy Power Station. At the end of a tense, hours-long meeting, the board voted 6-1 to grant the plant its permit.
We can look at this as a good example of the injustice built into the process of approving fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Though a public comment period must exist, we see in this case that decision-makers did everything in their power to make it a mere formality -- they chose to inadequately publicize it, keeping community members who otherwise would have voiced opposition in the dark until after it was too late.
The disregard for the health and safety of the surrounding communities is truly stunning. It’s as though Virginia’s regulatory agencies don’t care that when corporations pump out toxic emissions, real human beings breathe them in. Promises of job or economic growth from the companies building these plants typically fall flat, or are short-lived, especially in light of the health costs and property devaluation that go along with such hazardous projects.
And moreover, this is a buildout of unnecessary fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when we should be doing everything in our power to end our fossil fuel dependence and transition, quickly and equitably, to renewable energy.
As of now, we don’t know if Balico will speed into construction, or if some technicality might give locals another opportunity to protest. However, we do know the process of fossil fuel infrastructure approval in Virginia is democratic in name only. Again and again, corporations use their clout to lambast the concerns of underrepresented communities across the state, only to poison the air those communities breathe and the water they drink.
While we fight for a fairer process overall, we must also fight to ensure the voices of those most impacted are listened to within the existing approval process. In the meantime, we should all consider donating to groups, like Food & Water Watch, that organize and provide support for grassroots action in communities like Charles City. Help us take on the fossil fuel industry more broadly by adding your name to our national petition calling for a fracking ban.