The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality allowed the developers of a proposed natural gas plant to keep a permit to build even after agency managers found the permit invalid because developers weren’t meeting a requirement to have ongoing construction at the site, public records show.
The proposed C4GT plant site is about a mile from a second proposed natural gas plant in Charles City County, home to about 7,000 people, where the school division is the largest employer and residents have to leave the county to find a grocery store.
Environmental groups have questioned the proposals, saying they are not necessary for Virginia’s electricity needs and would bring pollution to a poorer area of the state.
A team of regional DEQ managers on May 6 worked on a letter that would have invalidated the permit for C4GT. The letter would have informed Michigan-based developer NOVI Energy that DEQ found its permit invalid and it had 30 days to request a formal hearing to appeal. An aerial photo taken in March showed no further work had been done since December and no construction equipment on the site.
A DEQ manager emailed a colleague that day to say he would send the letter “downtown” for review. The agency’s headquarters is in downtown Richmond.
Twenty days later, the letter had been rewritten into a “warning letter” to Anand Gangadharan, president and CEO of NOVI Energy, asking for a reply, according to the documents.
DEQ Director David Paylor in an interview declined to say whether he agreed with the earlier, regional DEQ assessment that continuous construction wasn’t happening.
“We are evaluating that,” he said. And he declined to say exactly who wanted the change from invalidating the permit to issuing a warning.
“There is a legal process that we have to follow in any decisions that we make,” he said.
The documents were obtained under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act by the environmental group Food & Water Watch, which shared them with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“The documents demonstrate that DEQ has what it needs to invalidate C4GT’s air permit, but has chosen not to act yet,” Food & Water Watch said in a news release.
The lack of action by DEQ is concerning to environmentalists who are closely watching plans for C4GT and the second proposed natural gas plant planned in the rural area where poverty is more prevalent than in other parts of the region. The C4GT site is about 23 miles from downtown Richmond.
Mary Finley-Brook, an associate professor of geography and the environment at the University of Richmond and a regular critic of DEQ, has tried unsuccessfully through state records requests to learn more about exactly who is behind the two gas plant proposals.
“Something, someone has kept this afloat. We’ve never really had that information,” she said.
“DEQ does an awful lot to pretend that there’s great rigor and to be very confident in their assessments ... even though we know along the way, repeatedly, there has been a lack of compliance.”
Gangadharan, the president of the company that wants to develop the C4GT plant, did not respond to emails requesting an interview.
Both C4GT and the second proposal on the table, Chickahominy Power, are backed by private investors. Virginia’s DEQ has received no updates from the Chickahominy Power developer about any construction commencing.
The gas would be piped from other states and burned to create electricity that could be sold in a 13-state area that includes Virginia. While natural gas plants are cleaner than coal plants, they emit pollutants like nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and methane, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes as a potent greenhouse gas.
If the two plants in Charles City are built, they will likely be too expensive to run — and will probably retire — long before the end of their normal operating lives because of shifting economic and legal dynamics, including a clean energy law passed by the Virginia General Assembly last year, according to Will Cleveland, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Cleveland said he hasn’t seen anything that shows the plants are needed for Virginia’s electricity supply and that their developers’ plan is to profit by selling electricity to a larger market.
C4GT received its permit in April 2018 and was required to begin construction within 18 months. DEQ later extended the construction period and gave the plant’s developer until December 2020 to begin construction. Just before the December deadline to commence construction or lose its permit, the developer notified DEQ that construction had begun.
But DEQ officials found all the developer did was build a short gravel road and pour a small concrete foundation for a pump house, according to records.
A coalition of organizations, including Concerned Citizens of Charles City County, wrote to Gov. Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring and DEQ Director Paylor in January asking them to hold the developer accountable for side-stepping the requirements of the permit. They called on Northam to demand that Paylor and the state’s Air Pollution Control Board use their power to revoke the permit.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, asked the attorney general if pouring a concrete slab constituted “continuous construction.” A surrogate to Herring responded in April saying it was up to DEQ and the air board to make that call.
DEQ inspectors kept close watch this year to see if the plant began the continuous construction required by law. The plant developer failed to submit construction progress reports in February and April. In March, it told DEQ that no further construction had occurred.
DEQ managers found that no construction had happened since Dec. 3.
People who live near the proposed plants said that in a county that doesn’t have a grocery store, there are other things government officials should focus on.
“They always want to bring something to this county that’s not beneficial to us,” said Bernadine Robinson, who was outside gardening on a recent hot day with her husband, Vaden Robinson. The Charles City landfill is also nearby. Old Union Road, where the Robinsons live on what was her parents’ property, has become congested with fast-moving trucks and the road quality is deteriorating.
County Administrator Michelle Johnson could not be reached this week.
Instead of a gas plant, government leaders should work for things that would provide jobs to people who live there, Bernadine Robinson said. A state filing in 2019 from C4GT said the plant would employ about 18 to 22 people full time.
The Robinsons noticed that neighboring New Kent County doesn’t seem to have difficulty landing Food Lion stores.
“Bring something that’s going to be beneficial to the citizens of Charles City County,” Bernadine Robinson said.
The two proposed gas plants would generate more electricity combined than the 180-turbine wind farm that Dominion Energy wants to build off the coast of Virginia Beach, which would be the largest offshore wind project in the country. The Chickahominy plant alone would be larger than any of the natural gas plants operated in Virginia by Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility.
“These are really big plants,” said Stephen Metts, a part-time associate professor at The New School in New York who has studied the permitting process for gas plants for about five years. Putting two a mile from each other would be very rare nationally, he said.
Metts researched the Chickahominy plant proposal in 2019 and found minority populations of 70% to 80% 3 to 5 miles away.
“These two plants together in such close proximity is really a very large, new emission source,” he said. “Somebody living [within] a mile or so of these plants is going to get a huge emission experience that they didn’t have before.”