Chickahominy Power: Another Cynical Hijacking of “Environmental Justice”

by James A. Bacon

For many years we have heard how in our unjust capitalist system investment capital bypasses poor, minority neighborhoods. Under-investment means fewer jobs and economic opportunities for African-American workers and small businesses. The goal of much public policy, from government-subsidized urban redevelopment to tax-exempt enterprise zones, is to stimulate more investment in minority neighborhoods.

But when someone proposes an investment, it is not always welcome. Take, for example, the proposal to build the $1.6 billion Chickahominy Power Station in Charles City County, a poor, predominantly African-American county between Richmond and Hampton Roads.

With a capacity of 1,650 megawatts, the natural gas-fired power plant would sell electricity into the PJM wholesale market, in effect exporting electricity to the Mid-Atlantic states. But the facility, we hear from The Virginia Mercury, is an affront to environmental justice. As evidence, the Mercury cites a certain Stephen Metts of the New School in New York, who found the following:

Four census tracts surrounding the proposed Chickahominy Power Station site far exceed state averages for minority and economically disadvantaged populations. In three, minorities make up more than 65 percent of the population, compared to a statewide average of 37 percent, while in two, the percentage of residents living in poverty is between 21 and 26 percent, compared to 12 percent statewide.

Foes of the project have suggested that the proposed plant would have a negative environmental impact on minority communities by withdrawing groundwater and emitting air pollution. It’s not clear from that Mercury article or any other that I could find,  however, what precisely that negative impact might be.

The company has touted the fact that the facility will be “the cleanest facility” of its type in the U.S. It will use air-cooling technology to manage turbine temperatures and reduce water consumption. The Department of Environmental Quality said last year that revisions to the draft air pollution permit made it “more stringent compared to any other power facility in the country.”

True, the power plant would withdraw water from the shrinking Potomac Aquifer, which its owners propose to address long-term through an arrangement with neighboring New Kent County, but that won’t affect nearby landowners. Home wells don’t go deep enough to draw from the Potomac Aquifer. As for air pollution, natural gas isn’t coal. It emits almost zero heavy metals and particulates. The primary emission, carbon dioxide, may contribute to global warming but increased CO2 will have not impact locally.

While environmentalists have trouble spelling out how minorities living near the plant might be endangered, they insist that there must be environmental injustice in there somewhere. Reports the Virginia Mercury:

Gustavo Angeles, the environmental justice program coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, contended that DEQ’s conclusions about the environmental justice implications of the project were not valid because the department “does not know how to do environmental justice.”

Earlier this year, he argued, the agency hired consultants to conduct an environmental justice study of the department, “acknowledging by doing that that they are not capable of doing environmental justice for themselves.”

Got that? Angeles proffers no evidence of environmental harm. He just attacks DEQ credibility.

Meanwhile, in the grand tradition of telling only one side of the story, the Virginia Mercury neglects to address any of the following questions: How many construction jobs will there be? Where will the workers come from? What percentage of those workers will be minorities? How many permanent jobs will be created, who will fill those jobs, and how many will be minorities?

We do know that Charles City County supports the project — another fact the Mercury omits. “We want economic development,” Rachel Chieppa, assistant administrator for Charles City County told Commercial Property Executive in 2018. “We have a designated area for development and that’s where these two plants (Chickahominy Power and C4GT LLC) are being built.”

The two natural gas projects would provide a phenomenal boost to the tax base of one of Virginia’s poorest counties. A Waste Management landfill — which was built before environmentalists had glommed onto the environmental justice idea — provides an outsized share of tax revenue today. As a consequence, Charles City managed to spend $16,448 per student in the 2019-20 school year — almost $2,000 per student more than Loudoun County, the richest county in the state. A majority of students are African-American.

The addition of two natural gas plants would turbo-charge the county budget, giving it the latitude to devote even more spending on schools as well as other amenities for the county’s majority-minority population (44.5% African-American, 6.7% American Indian).

In sum, the assertion that building a $1.6 billion power plant in Charles City County constitutes environmental racism is a fraud. Perhaps the Mercury should ask a few African-American residents of Charles City County whether or not they welcome the investment instead of highlighting the comments of white environmentalists like those on the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is leading the criticism. Take a look at the SELC website, which shows photos of the nonprofit’s 156 staff members. Only four appear to be African-American. Maybe someone ought to investigate SELC employment practices for violating social justice principles!

The SELC, Sierra Club and other environmental groups oppose every natural gas plant ever proposed on the grounds that they emit CO2, which is implicated in global warming. The rhetoric about “environmental justice” is purely tactical — another rhetorical device in the ongoing P.R. battle to shut down the fossil-fuel plants by any means necessary. If these groups truly cared about the welfare of poor minorities, they would support the construction of gas plants that would create jobs, fill the coffers of Charles City County, and immeasurably improve the lives of the county’s minority residents.