In the first major test of Virginia’s historic environmental justice law, the state’s air board Dec. 3 approved a U.S. Navy proposal to build a power plant near a predominately Black community with higher-than-normal rates of respiratory illnesses.
Environmental and health advocates were dismayed by the State Air Pollution Control Board’s 5–1 decision, saying it shows that the state still hasn’t fully embraced equity and justice at the regulatory level. Board members, meanwhile, pointed out that the Navy plans to install technologies that will ensure the plant produces few emissions.
The 17-megawatt natural gas-fired plant would be constructed inside the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. Navy officials say the new plant is needed to supply the facility with a cleaner and more reliable source of energy. The installation, which repairs and overhauls naval warships, is currently heated with steam from a more than 30-year-old Wheelabrator waste-to-energy plant, and its electricity comes from Dominion Energy.
“The Navy is trying to improve the situation,” said air board member Lornel Tompkins, a retired lung doctor.
Officials with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality displayed computer modeling suggesting that the plant would add little pollution to the surrounding air — the biggest spike over existing conditions coming from a 2% increase in soot, known as particulate matter. The existing air quality is good enough, in part because of the presence of ocean breezes, to absorb the plant’s additional emissions without bumping up against national limits for any key pollutant, they said.
But community activists disputed that characterization, arguing that any new pollution will imperil the health of thousands of lives. And there’s no guarantee that the Wheelabrator plant will close after the new plant opens, which could mean the impacts would be cumulative. “That is a very dense, populated area. It is not just commercial. The gate on Effingham Street, you can walk right out of the gate and into one of the most populated areas in Portsmouth,” Lynn Godfrey, who lives about 2 miles from the shipyard, told the board.
Activists are pushing the Navy to consider solar power instead, but officials say they have ruled that out over reliability concerns.
Calls for environmental justice
The surrounding community is an example of a minority population that has seen more than their fair share of environmental abuse — and some say they have paid for it with their health.
Within a 2-mile radius of the project, 70% of the residents are members of a minority, according to an analysis conducted by a Navy consultant. Half qualify as low-income, by at least one measure.
The census tracts bordering the shipyard contain four Superfund or National Priority List sites and 11 fuel storage and distribution terminals. The shipyard itself is a Superfund site.
The dense cluster of industry has taken a toll on residents’ health, activists say. Among the evidence they cite: a citywide health survey in 2017, which showed that Portsmouth residents have asthma, a respiratory illness that can be triggered by airborne pollution, at rates twice the state and national averages. African Americans, who tend to suffer from asthma at higher rates than other groups, account for about 55% of Portsmouth’s population.
“This is the culmination of a lot of frustration to really put their foot down and say, ‘Enough is enough,’” said Narissa Turner, police and campaign manager for the Virginia Conservation Network. “We’ve had it.”
The relationship between Portsmouth’s toxic legacy and the health of its residents, though, is complicated: Despite the high rate of asthma and the presence of so much industry, air-monitoring devices in the immediate area show that pollution remains at acceptable levels.
In its written statement responding to public comments, the Navy concluded that no community would “bear a disproportionate share of any negative environmental consequences from the [power] plant. Their ambient air is, and would remain, safe.”
The 60-megawatt Wheelabrator plant sits on shipyard property but is operated by the private company. The facility is capable of processing up to 2,370 tons of trash per day, which is trucked in from localities across much of the Hampton Roads region.
Naval officials say the new plant would ensure a stable source of energy for the installation for years to come — something that can’t necessarily be said of its current source. The region’s waste authority attempted to replace Wheelabrator with a startup a few years ago, only to renew its contract after the new company failed to meet the agreement’s deadlines. Wheelabrator’s deal with the Southeastern Public Service Authority expires in 2027 but includes provisions for two renewal options of up to five years each.
The new plant would emit far less pollution than the shipyard’s current energy source. Bolstered by air scrubbers and other new technologies, the proposed facility would release up to 35 tons of carbon monoxide and 30 tons of nitrogen oxides per year. The Wheelabrator plant produces 1,400 tons and 2,000 tons, respectively, said Pat Corbett, DEQ’s air toxics coordinator.
“It’s a demonstration of the Navy’s decision to move away from dirtier, older types of energy-generation technology,” said Capt. Bill Butler, the shipyard’s public works officer.
Whether the Wheelabrator plant will continue operating after the Navy pulls out is unclear. The military branch is the plant’s only steam customer, but the facility also sells electricity to the grid.
A Wheelabrator spokeswoman didn’t specify whether the existing plant would remain open or close but said in a statement that the company is “concerned about the economic and environmental implications” of the Navy decision.
The case’s timing presented a bureaucratic headache to the air board. During its 2020 session, the General Assembly passed the Environmental Justice Act, which requires state agencies to account for disproportionate impacts to minority communities in their actions.
The DEQ, though, hasn’t translated the law into agency policies yet. So, it was up to the air board to decide how to apply the new law to the power plant decision.
Air board deliberations
The shipyard decision marked the first time that the air board has waded into racial waters since the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in January overturned the panel’s permit for a compressor station in Buckingham County. The federal court ordered the board to rehear the case, this time with more scrutiny on the potential health and environmental effects in the historic African American community of Union Hill.
That case cast a long shadow over the shipyard proceedings, with air board members and DEQ staff referring to it at several points.
“We don’t want to make the same mistake again here,” said air board Chairman Roy Hoagland.
At the urging of Senior Assistant Attorney General Paul Kugelman, the board carved up the decision into three separate votes — all designed to address the state’s shortcomings in the Buckingham case, as identified by the court. In the most notable vote, the board endorsed claims that the pollutants emitted by the plant wouldn’t disproportionately impact any environmental justice communities.
Several board members wrestled with the decision. When called during the final vote, Hoagland replied, “Just give me a minute.” Silence followed. Finally, his voice was heard again: “Um, I’m going to vote aye.”
The lone dissenting vote came from Hope Cupit, the leader of a community development nonprofit near Roanoke.
“Building this plant will only increase the risk of what is already happening to the people who are living in close proximity to this [plant] and are predominately African American,” she said. She added that a 1% increase in air pollution is “high when you’re talking about human life.”
Environmentalists criticized the approval, calling it out of touch with the recent court decision and change in state law.
“We appreciate that members of the board thoughtfully grappled with environmental justice questions, recognizing that much work remains following the landmark court decision on the Buckingham Compressor station and new environmental justice legislation,” said Peggy Sanner, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia executive director. But “the board’s meeting makes clear that Virginia still has a long road ahead to fully implement environmental justice in major decisions.”
James Boyd, president of the Portsmouth Branch NAACP, said he was disappointed by the decision but not surprised.
“They’re looking at the economic impact and the benefit it might have on the shipyard instead of the long-term, generational impact it may have on people’s lives,” he said. “Just because it’s an acceptable level [of pollution] doesn’t mean it’s a humane level.”