As it takes another contentious permit, the aviation council struggles with public engagement
Just months after an eight-hour meeting to review a controversial air permit for the Norfolk shipyard, the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board is gearing up for another marathon session to consider granting an air permit to a station compressor station that would be built in Chatham. as part of a planned branch of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
“This permit received perhaps as many as 400 comments,” President Roy Hoagland told the board at its April 23 meeting. “So guess, if you have 50 percent, that’s 200 people who would be able to speak for up to three minutes each.”
The review of the so-called Lambert Compressor Station comes as the Air Board of Directors roughed up by a federal judicial reprimand over the licensing of the Union Hill Compressor Station from the Coast Pipeline Atlantic, now canceled, is working to reorganize its way of approaching public engagement. .
Following another licensing decision in June 2019, a decision related to the Chickahominy Power Plant Project in Charles City County, the council convened an ad hoc committee on public engagement.
“The same old, the same old that we know doesn’t work”, Hoagland said to Mercury over the summer. “Even old, even old can be legal, but it’s not enough.”
Now, the committee’s work could face its first big test since the Lambert compressor station license must be presented to the citizen body in June.
Officials expect the meeting at which council will make its decision whether or not to grant the project an air heating permit.
The Mountain Valley pipeline has been challenged by environmental groups and local landowners since its inception.
Opponents say the 303-mile pipeline through southwest Virginia is not only unnecessary as the state and nation is moving away from fossil fuels, but is destructive to the environment. Erosion and sedimentation issues hampered construction of the pipeline, leading Virginia to ultimately collect $ 2.15 million in fines from developers. And courts have repeatedly stripped the pipeline of necessary permits, citing gaps in agency approvals.
Mountain Valley, however, continued to argue that natural gas remains essential, particularly with the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast pipeline.
“Everyone expects to be able to heat their home in the winter and cool it in the summer,” said Thomas Karam, president and CEO of lead pipeline developer Equitrans Midstream, during a call to investors in January. “Access and reliability must be the first priority, and we strongly believe that natural gas and natural gas infrastructure play an integral long-term role in providing this reliability.”
At the same time, the developers moved forward with plans to build a 75-mile branch of the main pipeline known as the Southgate Extension, which would stretch from Pittsylvania County south to North Carolina.
This project was also fraught with pitfalls. In August, North Carolina denied Southgate a water quality certification needed to build the pipeline in that state. While a federal appeals court overturned the decision and asked state officials to provide further explanation, judges said the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality had the power to deny the permit in Mountain Valley. A spokesperson for the agency afterwards told North Carolina Policy Watch the move “justifies” officials’ concerns about the Southgate extension.
A “ very visible ” authorization decision
In Virginia, officials from the Department of Environmental Quality and the Air Pollution Control Board will face their first major decision on the Southgate project in June: whether or not to grant an air permit for the station. Lambert two-turbine compressor to be built in Chatham, less than a mile from an existing compressor station on the Transco pipeline.
The issue sparked a flood of comments, both filed in writing with DEQ and made during a public hearing in Salem in February. In response to the outpouring, DEQ subsequently raised the issue to the air board for a final decision, action taken if 25 or more members of the public petition for consideration by the board or if the director chooses to do so.
The upcoming move, which is likely to occur on June 25, on Friday sparked extensive discussions within the board about what role public comment should play in members’ deliberations.
“There’s a whole process of public participation outside of the board meeting. And what actually happens at the board meeting when the decision is made is an opportunity for people who have attended previously to comment to the board on the summary that was provided to the board, ”said Cindy Berndt, Director of Regulatory Affairs for DEQ.
“This is not a new hearing. This is not an opportunity for new information. This is just an opportunity for people to say that staff have or have not responded correctly to their summary of comments, ”she continued. “You’re not trying to hold a new public hearing at a council meeting.”
Several members, including Hoagland, Kajal Kapur and Staci Rijal, contested the interpretation.
“Public comments at board meetings are very important,” Kapur said. “If not, why are we even giving them a chance to speak out if we are not going to take those comments into account?”
Hoagland said the question was “not just public comment, it is also public access to our decision making.”
“It’s just as important,” he said. “And I think that’s part of the transparency concerns we’ve heard from the public.”
But how best to make meetings more accessible to the public, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, has continued to spark disagreement within the board. The June 25 meeting to review the Lambert Compressor Station license would be “very visible,” they agreed, but whether it should be extended to two days to allow people who work during the week to weigh in a Saturday elicited mixed reactions, as did the shift of the Lambert permit exam to the evening.
Board member Richard Langford called the prospect of moving Saturday’s public comment a “double-edged sword,” noting that businesses, regulated entities and environmental groups typically do not work on weekends. .
“If you move everything through Saturday, you are helping some people but putting others at a disadvantage,” he said. “If you do it on Friday, it’s the opposite.”
The drive to increase public engagement has raised concerns among businesses. On April 22, the Virginia Manufacturers Association, which represents 6,000 manufacturers across the state, sent a letter to the airline commission asking to participate in the work of the public engagement committee, warning the commission that its authority was limited and calling to a “balanced” approach to engagement. also takes efficiency into account.
“We would like to point out to you that the burdens of engagement will cost money and time, and it will have a direct impact on the Virginia economy,” said Liz Williamson, an attorney for Williams Mullen representing the VMA.
Rijal, however, described the current system in which permitting considerations are typically taken at meetings held during the work week that often begin during the work day creates “a very imbalanced commitment burden”.
Representatives of business and environmental groups are paid for their time, she said. “If a public figure really wants to get involved, she takes a leave of absence. … So I think you kind of have to compensate for the fact that the engagement burden is extraordinarily high on the public compared to these other stakeholders.
While council made no decision on Friday to extend the June 25 meeting, Hoagland has committed to working with DEQ to bring forward a proposal for a two-day meeting or a rearrangement of the hours during which the permit review. Lambert would take place.