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Controversial Power Plant Project at Portsmouth Shipyard Approved by Air Pollution Board

docked ship
The Navy wants to build a natural gas plant at its shipyard in Portsmouth. (Photo: Don S. Montgomery, USN (Ret.))

After an 8-hour meeting Thursday, Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board approved a plan to build a natural gas power plant at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, despite strong opposition from environmentalists and Black rights leaders.

The Navy has  sought a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality to build energy turbines and steam generators at the shipyard in Portsmouth. Navy officials say the new plant will provide the facility with its own source of steam and electricity. The shipyard currently outsources its energy.

Opponents said building a new fossil fuel plant makes no sense  as Virginia tries to transition to cleaner renewable energy. They also said the plant could have negative health consequences for a nearby predominantly Black community, which already has been disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards.

During  Thursday’s meeting, experts with DEQ recommended the board approve the project. They argued the plant may actually help the environment.

The Norfolk Naval Shipyard currently gets steam from a nearby power center run by Wheelabrator Technologies. DEQ officials said the Navy’s new facility will be much cleaner than Wheelabrotor’s.

The shipyard is Wheelabrator’s main client. Once the Navy builds the new plant, Wheelabrator may have to cut operations, which would decrease total carbon emissions.

The Wheelabrator “technology is 25 years old,” Air Pollution Control Board member Richard Langford said. “I think this is a good step in the right direction. It’s essentially replacing one combined heat and power plant with another.”

Four other members also supported the Navy’s plan. Hope Cupit’s vote was the lone rejection.

With the board’s approval, DEQ is now expected to grant a permit for the plant.

The Navy said the project is important for national security because it will  increase the shipyard’s energy efficiency and independence.

Navy officials said the plant will cut the shipyard’s reliance on electricity from Dominion Energy. In the event of an extended outage to the electrical grid, the plant will let the shipyard keep operating and prevent delays to ship repairs. It will also include several mechanisms and practices meant to limit pollution.

Still, the plant is expected to emit at least 75,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually — the equivalent of more than 16,000 cars on the road in one year. Environmentalists also noted there’s no guarantee Wheelabrator will cut its operations and reduce emissions if it loses the Navy as a client.

“We’re very disappointed,” said Lauren Landis, an organizer with the non-profit Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “They did not prioritize Virginia’s needed and evidenced trajectory toward renewable energy… Any step backwards — however small, however incremental — it’s still a step backwards.”

Hanging over the board’s consideration of the project was  Virginia’s new commitment to ensuring that all residents, regardless of race and income, live in a clean environment.

The state plans to soon hire its first environmental justice director. And in October,  a report commissioned by DEQ concluded the agency must do a better job of evaluating how projects impact sensitive communities.

The Air Pollution Control Board has also received harsh criticism for past decisions.

In January,  a federal circuit court vacated a permit granted by the board involving the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The court concluded board members failed to consider the disproportionate health effects of a natural gas compressor station in Buckingham County on a nearby predominantly Black community.

During Thursday’s meeting, board members brought up the Buckingham decision multiple times and expressed they wanted to avoid future court judgements.

They heard testimony that the Norfolk Naval Shipyard is already a  polluted superfund site. A nearby mostly Black community has also suffered from environmental hazards from the shipyard and has high rates of cancer, respiratory disease and mercury and asbestos exposure, said Mary Finley-Brook — an environmental, geography and global studies professor at the University of Richmond.

She and other opponents said the new plant could emit air particulates that will have health consequences for local marginalized residents.

“This draft permit must be denied in its current state,” Finley-Brook told the board. “If a young child or elderly resident has asthma and lives in the direct vicinity, their quality of life will be diminished.”

She noted that the Portsmouth NAACP opposed the plant and argued that DEQ cherry-picked facts in its analysis of the plant.

But board members accepted DEQ’s conclusion that the project would have a negligible impact on air quality. And they disagreed the plant would disproportionately harm the health of local residents.

After much wavering over the Navy’s plan, board chair Roy Hoagland supported it.

“The Navy has worked hard to build a project that is frankly important for national security,” he said. “What is being built is clearly state-of-the-art and minimum impact.”

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