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Virginia compressor project raises environmental justice questions

Several environmental and civic groups are calling for a natural gas giant and federal regulators to rethink a project that could increase air pollution near one of southeast Virginia’s most vulnerable communities.

Canada’s TC Energy, the firm behind the contentious Keystone Pipeline, wants to upgrade a compressor station near Petersburg, adding 2,700 horsepower to its capacity. The work would remove controls that currently limit the horsepower of existing equipment.

To push that gas to the energy-hungry Hampton Roads region, the company also proposes doubling the diameter of nearly 50 miles of existing pipeline through Sussex, Surry, Southampton and Isle of Wight counties as well as the cities of Suffolk and Chesapeake.

The expansion and modifications along the Columbia Gas Transmission line have generated nowhere near the amount of outcry as the Mountain Valley Pipeline in the western part of the state. But both battles have raised environmental justice concerns over their potential impacts to nearby communities.

The compressor facility lies a few hundred feet outside the Petersburg city limits in Prince George County. It can be found along a two-lane, residential road, across from a subdivision of about 50 homes.

The main office is a ranch-style house. Most of the industrial buildings are obscured behind a fence.

The census block that is home to the station doesn’t qualify as an environmental justice community, according to TC Energy’s analysis. But in two other census blocks within a 1-mile radius, minority residents represent 92% and 80% of the population, well above the 50% threshold. Those figures mirror the 85% minority population in the city of Petersburg.

“You’re talking about a majority Black and Brown community being impacted,” said Pat Hines, president of Petersburg’s NAACP chapter. “They can minimize it and say it’s safe. But we call Petersburg a sacrifice city because in more affluent places they at least have some emergency brakes.”

The plant’s nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, according to TC Energy’s computer modeling, will exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “significant impact level,” an indicator that new emissions have the potential to tip a community’s air quality into the unhealthy territory, known as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS. Crossing the significant impact threshold leads to a higher level of analysis to determine if the new emissions, when mixed with existing background levels, will lead to unhealthy air.

Despite triggering that process for the two pollutants, the company said that its modeling further shows that the air quality will remain below the NAAQS threshold for each.

TC Energy, meanwhile, has committed to installing “mitigation measures,” although it is unclear what those would be.

In response to questions from the Bay Journal, a TC Energy representative issued a statement pointing to the determination that the Petersburg modifications would meet federal air protocols. The modifications, the company says, would be made to controls on the compressor motors, which it says were installed in 2019 to replace older units with greater emissions.

“We have prioritized community engagement throughout this process, including environmental justice communities. Our robust community outreach program provides project information and invites dialogue with local residents and businesses that may be impacted by VRP construction,” the company said, using the acronym for the project’s official title, the Virginia Reliability Project.

A coalition of regional environmental groups has joined the local cause.

“If there’s a project that does not need to be approved, it’s this one,” said Lynn Godfrey of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter. “It’s massive. As soon as you walk out of the car, you smell the gas.”

Her group put its concerns on the record in June with 47 pages of comments submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is reviewing the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. The Southern Environmental Law Center drafted the letter on behalf of the Sierra Club, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

In it, the groups call on TC Energy to upgrade the compressor units at the Petersburg station from gas to an emissions-free alternative, such as electric power. If other compressor facilities along the pipeline route are getting such upgrades, the critics ask, why is it not an option for Petersburg?

FERC faces more pressure than ever to consider environmental justice in its reviews. In one of his first acts as president, Joe Biden issued an executive order in January 2021 requiring federal agencies to give more weight to equity considerations. In response, FERC adopted an “equity action plan” that, among other priorities, singled out natural-gas decisions for deeper analysis.

The environmental groups told FERC and TC Energy in their letter that they don’t accept the finding that air pollutant levels will remain safe, calling the modeling method “improper and insufficient.”

“The methodology included in the [draft EIS], while sufficient for assessing generalized air quality impacts in a particular region, fails to adequately account for localized human health concerns,” the groups said in their letter. They pointed to research suggesting that there is no safe level of another pollutant: soot.

They added, “Fundamentally, it shows a lack of concern for the health of the communities that are burdened by pollution from the Petersburg Compressor Station and will be even more burdened if the VRP is approved as proposed.”

If the project is approved, TC Energy estimates that construction will begin between April and June 2024 and be completed by November 2025.

Source: Bay Journal