Gas Compressor Expansion Threatens Public Health and Water Quality in Petersburg, Virginia

Gas companies’ proposal puts community and water quality at risk

TC Energy, the company that operates a gas compressor in Petersburg—a small city outside of Richmond, Virginia—is planning to expand its operations. The proposal would increase pollution and possibly endanger the health of a mostly Black community already besieged with pollution from other industries.

Natural gas companies, including TC Energy, plan to widen their pipeline by 12 inches in order to supply more gas to the growing population in the Hampton Roads area. Called the “Virginia Reliability Project,” 50 miles of the pipeline from Sussex to Chesapeake will be replaced and expanded. The companies also plan to add a compressor station in Petersburg to pump more gas through the widened pipeline.

Community leaders and conservation organizations, including CBF, worry it will increase carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, methane, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide emitted into nearby communities. This would threaten public health and increase pollution to the air and water.

“Replacing the existing gas units at the Petersburg Compressor Station with electric or hybrid units would add capacity while improving local air quality,” says Taylor Lilley, CBF Environmental Justice Staff Attorney. “The fact that the gas companies didn’t even consider an electric option shows a glaring lack of concern for the people burdened by pollution from the Petersburg Compressor Station.”

CBF, the Sierra Club, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network are working together with community members in Petersburg to assess the safety and impact on the community and the Chesapeake Bay, and to educate and advocate for the community. In June, the groups raised concerns in comments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) draft environmental impact statement for the projects.

Petersburg is currently ranked least healthy out of Virginia’s 133 counties and cities, according to County Health Rankings and Roadmaps by the University of Wisconsin. About 77 percent of the city’s population are Non-Hispanic Blacks, and 36 percent of children are in poverty with more than half of them in single parent households. Residents’ life expectancy is 10 years below the national median of 77-and-a-half years of age, according to data compiled by U.S. News & World Report.   

The gasses emitted by the compressor station can increase the risk of asthma, cardiovascular, neurological, developmental, and respiratory diseases. Petersburg already has the highest hospitalization rate for asthma in the Central Region, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
“Certain health conditions are aggravated by fossil fuel infrastructure being located in poor and people of color neighborhoods more so than others,” said Lynn Godfrey, Sierra Club’s Just Transition Program Manager.

Companies are required to post a notice in the local newspaper and on the DEQ website or town hall for relevant permit announcements. However, there is no requirement to ensure residents read or interact with these notices, according to CBF’s Environmental Justice Staff Attorney Taylor Lilley.

“They don’t know, and that’s tragic because we know people are getting sick . . . they are suffering through things and they have no idea that they’re being killed slowly,” said community advocate Lafayette Jefferson.

CBF analyzed the gas companies’ proposal for environmental justice concerns and its potential to increase air pollution and pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, according to CBF’s Virginia Communications Coordinator Kenny Fletcher. Lilley and other CBF staff went to Petersburg this summer to speak with community members and advocates about their concerns.

Safety is also a concern. TC Energy had the largest oil spill in the country in a decade this past December when its Keystone Pipeline leaked around 500,000 gallons into a creek in Kansas. On top of this, the company’s Keystone Pipeline has had almost 24 leaks since it began operations in 2010, according to the Petersburg Progress-Index.

In 2019, TC Energy invested in a complete renovation of the Petersburg Compressor Station. As part of this renovation, the station's compressor units were replaced, resulting in the facility's air permit being modified to a Minor Source Permit, according to TC Energy. Although the Virginia Reliability Project will not physically expand the Petersburg Compressor Station, it will double the horsepower and therefore increase pollutants emitted into the air. However, because of their new air permit from 2019, TC Energy claims they don’t need another one to increase the level of operations.

“We want to hold the state’s regulatory and permitting agencies accountable because there was no new air permit issued for this particular compressor station,” said Godfrey.

FERC is re-evaluating its draft environmental impact statement for the Virginia Reliability Project, after the Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network submitted comments and changes. The initial draft does not take environmental justice impacts into account or address alternative, safer methods.  

An environmental impact statement is required by federal agencies if their action will significantly impact the quality of the human environment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These statements are important because they attempt to inform the public about big projects in the area that will affect their environment and potentially their health.  

With increased concentration of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, the FERC report showed that this expansion would exceed the safety integrity level standards for houses 1,200 feet away from the compressor.

These harmful gasses will not only affect Petersburg residents, but also the Chesapeake Bay.  The Chesapeake Bay Airshed is far more vast than the watershed; it is 570,000 square miles and stretches from Canada to North Carolina and across to Ohio, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. An airshed is an area of land which airborne pollutants can travel across to reach a certain body of water. As the Virginia Reliability Project will emit more pollution it will most certainly adversely affect the Petersburg community and beyond.

The gas-compressor also causes ground-level ozone, which forms when nitrogen oxides combine with volatile organic compounds in sunlight. Breathing in this chemical can reduce lung function and even permanently scar lung tissue if exposure is consistent. Ground-level ozone not only affects nearby communities, but spreads regionally.

Because the airshed is so sprawling, pollutants emitted in Petersburg will eventually end up in the Chesapeake Bay. Airborne nitrogen is a major source of pollution to the Bay and its tributaries, contributing to algal blooms which rob aquatic life of their oxygen.

However, after reaching out to TC Energy for comment, they replied in an email saying, “Modifications to the Petersburg Compressor Station would not exceed National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which are established to be protective of human health. Once operational, VRP will not exceed any state or federal air quality standards, and any claims otherwise are simply untrue.”

With so much at risk, it is time to take a second look to ensure public and environmental health are not compromised at the expense of corporate expansion and company profits. Because of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the pipeline expansion will face closer scrutiny to ensure the health and safety of the Petersburg community and the Chesapeake Bay.

Lilly Howard, Fred Tutman Fellow, The Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative

Issues in this Post

Environmental Justice   Air Pollution   Community   Environmental Justice  


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