Disclosure: This is the content of my comment letter to the VA Department of Environmental Quality on 2/14/20 regarding the draft special exception groundwater permit for Balico LLC subsidiary Chickahominy Power LLC, no. GW0078700. Although I am an elected Director of the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District, my comment letter was written as an individual citizen of Henrico County and not in an official capacity, nor am I representing an official viewpoint of that Board.
The State Water Control Board should deny the special exception groundwater permit for the proposed natural gas Chickahominy Power Plant in Charles City County because the air and water permitting processes have been flawed by a lack of transparency and communication and there are outstanding questions that need to be answered. Securing a water permit is a vital component of development that has long been treated as a foregone conclusion – if not an outright entitlement – by developers, contractors, and investors. This is an outdated mindset that is no longer appropriate in the 21st century, an era of heightened awareness of the causes – and dire impacts – of climate change. Those causes include continued reliance on fossil fuels.
Why is this compromise special exception being considered at all?
The Draft Special Exception Issuance Fact Sheet in this case, dated November 22, 2019, states that “DEQ does not believe the issuance of a typical groundwater withdrawal permit is consistent with the Groundwater Management Act of 1992” given that the usage of the water is not for human consumption, which according to the Act shall be given preference over all other uses, and given that “the requested groundwater withdrawal is within an area that has incurred an overall decline in the Potomac Aquifer.” The anticipated replenishment of some portion of the aquifer from renegotiated withdrawal limits with municipalities in the region is speculative. Furthermore, the special exception permit seems to be proposed without consideration of the concomitant pipeline infrastructure additions that present their own set of environmental concerns.
What is the purpose of a special exception?
The ambiguous special exception clause of the Groundwater Management Act of 1992 states:
The Board may issue a special exception to allow the withdrawal of ground water in the case of an unusual situation in which requiring the user to obtain a ground water withdrawal permit would be contrary to the intended purpose of the Act.
This seems to be a loophole that allows for a permit to be issued for any use, regardless of environmental impact, under the guise of being temporary and non-renewable. The 7-year term being proposed for this special exception permit is a significant period of time during which substantial aquifer depletion and other environmental damage will take place.
What happens at the end of the proposed 7-year period?
A letter from Bowman Consulting on behalf of Chickahominy Power LLC to DEQ, dated May 29, 2019, evaluates a number of potential alternative water sources. Bowman purports the most feasible Plan B to be connecting to an unsubstantiated surface water plant to be built “within the 15 year permit cycle for a groundwater withdrawal permit.” If this speculative water source is not online and connected to the Chickahominy Power Plant within the 7-year exception permit period, what happens? If the back-up to the back-up plan is to draw from New Kent’s existing well system, this option presents “several physical and environmental obstacles” and “would not present a net benefit to the aquifer system” as admitted in Bowman Consulting’s letter.
Why are we bending over backwards to accommodate another fossil fuel plant in a majority-minority community – with secret backers – just a mile from the already-permitted C4GT gas power plant?
The primary purpose of the Chickahominy Power Plant is to cash in on Virginia’s data center boom. As Mary Finley-Brook, Associate Professor of Geology and Environment at University of Richmond points out in her October 9, 2019 column in the Virginia Mercury:
“Balico LLC’s Chickahominy Power application with the SCC redacts the names of the project’s backers and several executives behind it, the plant’s combustion turbines and the natural gas hookup. These facts are hidden in SCC public records due to a 2017 confidentiality request . . . Why should the SCC privilege a non-transparent request for secrecy by an unregulated firm over the public’s right to know and who would benefit?”
Someone is pressing hard for approval, but the public is kept in the dark as to who stands to benefit at the expense of the wellbeing of citizens and the environment.
This push for profits over healthy communities is further evidenced by Senate Bill 992 that was written expressly to benefit Chickahominy Power Plant and C4GT by giving these plants a three-year reprieve from participating in a carbon cap and trade program if Virginia joins the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, lest potential investors be scared off by a commitment to responsible energy production.
It is time to say no to the lobbyists and consultants and stand up for the environment and the people. The Water Control Board should deny the special exception permit for Chickahominy Power LLC.