Hudgins: Let science speak: Time to restructure activist citizen boards after denied air permit

On Dec. 3, in a 6-1 vote, the activist Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board voted to deny an air permit for a compressor station in Pittsylvania County as part of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

State Air Pollution Control Board member Hope Cupit stated, “I have concluded that when we equitably consider — not just consider, but equitably consider — the potential negative environmental consequences of this permit, [it] would not promote environmental justice.” She added “if the Virginia Environmental Justice Act is to mean anything, and if we as a commonwealth are going to promote environmental justice, then the time has come to reject proposals like this one.”

The denial is based on an assessment that the permit did not meet “fair treatment” requirements under the Virginia Environmental Justice Act. However, it’s important to note that this compressor is sited near two existing compressors that have no problems.

The staff of professionals at the Department of Environmental Quality described the Lambert Compressor Station rules and regulations that limit emissions as historic in their strictness. The DEQ has classified the station as a minor source of emissions, but the submission was reviewed as if it were a major source for “the utmost reduction of emissions, the greatest protection of human health and the most public oversight/input.”

Paul Jenkins, Regional Air Permitting Manager, told the Air Pollution Control Board, “this permit would set the national standard of stringency that major sources would need to meet.” Further, Mike David, Chief Air Division, stated that agency models showed “the concentrations to impact were so low, almost minuscule once you get beyond 300 meters of the project.”

As we have heard repeatedly over the last year: let the science speak and follow the science. As noted above, the science has spoken loudly. But the Air Pollution Control Board, a collection of appointees with hardly any air pollution background, denied the permit based on “fair treatment.” Not science, not data, but the nebulous term “fair treatment.” After spending millions of dollars, hundreds of hours of staff time, and holding multiple public hearings, the conversation all came down to what “fair treatment” means.

This case is incredibly important for all Virginians because natural gas is required for manufacturing. The best cure for poverty, low income and disparity impact is a great paying job provided by manufacturers. With the availability of natural gas, good paying jobs will continue to locate in all areas of Virginia. But without natural gas, the decline accelerates in rural Virginia as people of all races, colors, national origins, incomes, faiths and abilities move to where the jobs are located.

Now is the time to completely restructure the citizen boards like the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board. We as taxpayers spend tens of millions of dollars to allow environmental agencies to hire the best people to make science-based decisions that are fair and equal for all citizens. At the most, the Air Pollution Control Board should serve as an advisory board, rather than allowing citizen appointees to have veto power over critical infrastructure and economic development projects. Who in the world would come to Virginia with a project, spending money, time and opportunity costs, only to end up with no permit? It’s madness. Virginians deserve better.

David Hudgins is executive director of the Virginia Energy Consumer Trust.