Statewide environmental news roundup – December 2023 (Part II)

File photo

A contributed perspectives piece by the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV) – December 2023 – Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in our regular series. This piece highlights, with links to further coverage in various media outlets, several recent environmental news stories and opinions of significance to Virginia, with a focus on energy and the environment.

CAAV has been pleased to provide these roundups and hopes to produce occasional updates. In this, our final edition of this series, begun in spring 2020, we bring you only a fraction of the encouraging and discouraging news in our state this month. Some items are mundane, some are technical; some affect many, and some only a few – but these, and other stories too numerous to include, are part of our common reality. Thank you for reading.

We hope you will continue to seek out news and opinion pieces to help you understand what’s happening in Virginia. The “Check out” section (below) has a list of many of the news outlets that offer so much invaluable information and on which we have relied. Most are available for free. Please consider reading and supporting the efforts of their reporters and editors and allow them to inform you further on the many subjects we’ve covered in this series, as well as those in which you have particular interest. CAAV will continue to produce the monthly Climate News Roundup. Find it here. You may also wish to read The Friendly City Urbanist, written by a Harrisonburg resident. It’s focused on local, state, and national topics relating to land use, housing, climate, and transportation. You can subscribe to the email newsletter or simply read it online without subscribing.

We hope these words by an opinion writer and associate professor of New Testament will resonate:

Humans and the world we inhabit are interconnected. We have consistently put our needs above those of our neighbors and the planet we inhabit, and the fire, water, wind and snow now cry out in rebuke…. Nature simply reveals the wounds that we inflict upon it. Creation bears witness…. The year 2023 was nature’s testimony that something is profoundly broken. The year 2024 — and beyond — will show whether we loved anyone beyond ourselves enough to listen. Our children will bear the weight of our response.

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “I honor the human race.” When it faces life head-on, it can almost remake itself.” For all our sakes, we trust that humanity will prove her correct.


Regulations, Legislation and Utilities

A plan to double the size of a natural gas pipeline in Hampton Roads now has approval from regulators despite opposition from environmental groups. The expansion, called the Virginia Reliability Project, would dig up, replace and double the size of two sections, or about 48 miles, of Columbia Gas pipeline between Chesapeake and Petersburg.” “This month, the state’s Marine Resources Commission issued a wetlands permit for the project, although 175 Virginia residents submitted comments, all in opposition. The Virginia Reliability Project calls for constructing compressor stations and expanding a gas line which has been operating since the 1950s with a larger-diameter pipeline. … [The] general counsel and deputy director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network said the project does not line up with Virginia’s climate goals, and a report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission appeared to confirm it. In the final Environmental Impact Statement that FERC has to issue, it clearly said, ‘This project will increase Virginia’s climate emissions by 2%…'”. [Legal] action is being considered to halt the project.” (See opinion piece below.)

Federal energy regulators last week approved a three-year extension for Mountain Valley Pipeline to build a planned 75-mile offshoot of its main natural gas pipeline that would run from Pittsylvania County to North Carolina. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC] gave Mountain Valley until June 18, 2026 to complete the Southgate extension, despite complaints that the project would cause air and water pollution and is not necessary…. When FERC approved the offshoot in 2020, it made that approval conditional on Mountain Valley receiving the necessary permits for the mainline.”

Data Centers and Energy Storage

Prince William County’s professional planning staff has once again recommended against approving the Prince William Digital Gateway — rezoning applications that seek to open 1,760 acres just north of the Manassas National Battlefield Park to as many as 37 new data centers. The county’s planning staff made a similar recommendation to the Prince William County Planning Commission …, which voted after an all-night hearing to recommend denial of the rezonings tied to the project. But since the Planning Commission has only an advisory role, the rezonings were … sent to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors….” The Board narrowly approved the project for what could be the largest data center corridor after hearing from “nearly 400 people [who] weighed in during an often-heated 27‑hour‑long meeting….” “Now that Digital Gateway has been approved, [one question is] what’s next for the massive data center project?” The Board’s decision may be challenged in court. The developer still needs to acquire some of the land. It needs to plan for project rollouts and for infrastructure improvements it promised to deliver. The timetable is, at present, “murky.”

“The Culpeper County Board of Supervisors approved another 1.4 million of data center square footage … on pastureland … part of the county’s heavily-marketed McDevitt Drive Technology Zone. A REC substation on-site will serve the development along with large backup generators, with self-contained fuel units, according to developers…. Three other data center projects are also in the works in this area and a fourth, an Amazon site, is planned….”

“A lawsuit seeking to invalidate Warrenton Town Council’s vote to approve the controversial Amazon data center can go forward — at least in part…. The two counts that … [the judge] said could move forward are procedural in nature and attack the validity of the town’s zoning text amendment that allows data centers to obtain a special use permit to build in industrial zones….” 

Dominion Energy has flipped the switch on what’s so far its largest batterybank, the latest step in its increasingly fast-paced move to install electricity storage facilities on its grid. The now-operational Dry Bridge Battery Energy Storage System in Chesterfield County can store up to 20 megawatts of electricity for four hours. That’s enough to power 5,000 homes. Batteries have become a necessity as the utility adds solar and offshore wind turbines to its system.”

Renewable Energy

“The federal government is pitching Virginia on loan opportunities to help pay for the state’s transition to renewables, saying federal funding can reduce the financial burden passed on to ratepayers. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Program Office said loans are available to cover up to 80% of the costs of projects that convert fossil fuel generation sources to renewables, install transmission upgrades and develop offshore wind or small modular nuclear reactors and their related supply chains.”

“The United States Department of the Interior … announced the proposal for the sale of an offshore wind lease off the Atlantic Coast, including one area about 35 nautical miles from the shores of Hampton Roads. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the sale will include an area off the coast of Maryland and Delaware in addition to the area in Virginia.… According to the proposed lease, the agreement would allow for a project to generate energy using wind turbine generators and … includes any offshore substation platforms, inner array cables and subsea export cables. If approved, the operating lease for the Virginia site would last 33 years. The two areas have the potential to power more than 2.2 million homes.”

As other wind projects stall, Virginia’s approach keeps Dominion’s on track…. [Research and engineering analyses] gave Dominion the confidence to bid $1.6 million in 2013 to win a federal offshore wind farm lease — the stretch of the Atlantic 25 miles from the Virginia Beach Oceanfront where it’s now on track to complete a 176-turbine wind farm. Dominion is taking delivery of the first of the 176 giant steel tubes — 292 feet long, 1,500 tons — that will anchor its turbines in waters up to 125 feet deep. The project is on schedule and on budget, according to filings with the State Corporation Commission. At the same time, some developers in other states are dropping wind projects or recognizing big accounting losses — $5 billion so far — because costs are looking to exceed revenue. A New Jersey project is dead. New York state is reopening its auctions for wind power firms trying to nail down higher prices for their power.” Dominion believes its model differs from those in other East Coast states and will succeed.

Unfounded claims about offshore wind threatening whales have surfaced as a flashpoint in the fight over the future of renewable energy. In recent months, conservatives … have claimed construction of offshore wind turbines is killing the giant animals. Scientists say there is no credible evidence linking offshore wind farms to whale deaths…. In Europe, where offshore wind has been developed for more than three decades, national agencies also have not found causal links between wind farms and whale deaths. Meanwhile, U.S. scientists are collecting data near offshore wind farms to monitor any possible impacts short of fatality, such as altered behavior or changes to migration routes. This research is still in preliminary stages….”

Even so, “a pair of organizations has filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue letter against the [Dominion] Virginia Offshore Wind Project …. [The] two organizations are filing with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management [BOEM] and the National Marine Fisheries Service the letter for a violation of the Endangered Species Act [ESA]. The notice is required by the … [ESA] for parties who wish to commence litigation against BOEM. The lawsuit stems from what the two groups say is a failure to provide adequate protection of the North Atlantic right whale and other endangered species.” (See opinion piece below.)

Have you heard of “solar grazing”? In Virginia, it’s “sheep … [working] year-round to ‘lamb-scape’ Virginia solar farms…. It’s part of a larger movement called agrivoltaics, or using land simultaneously for agriculture and solar energy. The concept’s pretty simple. Solar farms need to keep vegetation short, so it won’t interfere with the panels. Instead of paying someone to mow the grass, a solar farm operator can hire shepherds….”

Through an unusual conversion of an aged former school building as a pilot project, “Pulaski County’s green era [will combine]: a vertical farm, solar panels and green manufacturing. Pulaski … added a methane conversion plant and a focus on green manufacturing in an effort to market itself as a green, ‘solar friendly’ locality.”

“A new Richmond co-op [organized by the national nonprofit Solar United Neighbors] increases [the] region’s solar options…. [The] Richmond-based co-op [helps participants buy] … solar panels and EV chargers [at a discount]… Right now, solar in the Old Dominion can power over a half-million homes — and it’s growing. … {The] commonwealth ranks 10th in the nation for installed solar capacity and is projected to be among the top 10 for new project installations during the next five years.”


“Over 350 members of Valley Interfaith Action [(VIA) recently] took “the next step” in hopes of bringing transportation and childcare to the area …, with the help of a $50,000 grant from Sentara and two confirmed yes votes from county supervisors. VIA is a “broad-based, non-partisan, multi-issue” organization made up of faith-based, immigrant, neighborhood and other associations. After holding a listening campaign in 2022, the group has been campaigning to bring door-to-door demand response transit to Rockingham County and affordable childcare with teachers who are paid a living wage…. [The] recent … [event brought together VIA] members to advocate for demand response transit [in Rockingham County] and two new affordable childcare centers … [and] to have a conversation to work toward the vision.

 “Albemarle County’s free, on-demand transit service, still in its pilot stage, is off to a strong start. Seven weeks since its inception, the Charlottesville Area Transit’s MicroCAT fleet of six vans has provided more than 1,000 rides to riders traveling within Pantops and the U.S. 29 corridor…. The MicroCAT service operates from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and is free of charge…. It’s designed to help cover regions of the county that are underserved by public transit, allowing people to connect to bus stops or take them directly to certain destinations. ‘This new low-emission pilot program will improve public options in Albemarle County with technology to expand access to flexible, equitable and sustainable transportation,’ … [the] chair of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, told a crowd at the program’s ribbon-cutting back in October.”

Roanoke’s Valley Metro to expand with microtransit service” through a pilot program that will allow customers to call for Sunday service.

“An infusion of $2 million in federal funding will study improvements to passenger rail in Virginia and beyond, encompassing routes that would include the New River Valley.” “$500,000 [of the funding is] earmarked for additional study of Bristol rail route.” “Virginia has awakened to a cool new railroad set under its holiday tree. It includes multiple trains to run between Washington, D.C., and stations in Henrico County and downtown Richmond. It has tracks east to Norfolk and Newport News and west to Roanoke and the New River Valley and maybe Bristol. The set even includes tracks to run fast trains from Richmond to Raleigh, N.C., a state capital-to-capital connection that would take about 75 minutes less time than it does now. Sounds swell, but now Virginia has to assemble it all so the trains reach their destination on time.”

 “In the realm of railroads, Charlottesville may be the little city that could, as three federal grants announced … [recently] appear to move Charlottesville closer to more daily trains and something that’s not been seen in 47 years: a direct rail connection to Richmond and Tidewater.” “There are a few more hurdles to clear before a new passenger rail stop can open in Christiansburg. The stop, first promised in 2021, has had a completion date set for some time in 2025, and while there’s nothing to suggest that timeframe is out-of-reach, officials are still awaiting design plans before they choose a location for the stop.” (See opinion piece below.)

“Electric vehicles are gaining popularity in Virginia, but sales are unlikely to meet the looming state mandate, based on the current trajectory. EVs accounted for 9% of all new vehicles sold in the state in the first eight months of 2023, according to a new report from the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association. That’s a big increase from the 6% share of the market EVs held in 2022 and the 3% they held in 2021. They have a long way to go. According to a state mandate, all new vehicles sold in Virginia must be fully electric by 2035, a policy set by California that’s often derided by Republicans here. [Based] “on the current trajectory, it does not appear Virginia will reach the mandate set by the California Air Resources Board…. [Nonetheless,] Virginia auto dealers are investing big money in EVs [though some wonder] Is it worth it?

Climate and Environment

Chesapeake Bay, Wildlife, Water and Land

Tangier Island sits in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay between the Eastern Shore and the Northern Neck of Virginia, accessible only by boat or a small plane…. But for … residents …, it’s a race against Mother Nature. Coastal erosion is one part of the equation, sea level rise is another. Whether it’s a nor’easter or tropical storm, four to five times a year more and more of the island gets inundated. Since 1850, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass and surrounding neighbors.” “A possible engineering solution would be to build a seawall around the entire island. That would take care of the erosion issue…. [But] erosion is only half of the issue. Sea level rise would require that the island be raised up using dredged material…. An engineering solution that involves both a seawall and raising the island up would be extremely expensive, and neither the island’s 450-odd residents nor Accomack County has the resources to fund a project that could cost somewhere in the tens of millions of dollars…. The … [Army] Corps [of Engineers] … has not conducted a study yet to determine the exact cost of building a seawall around the entire island. One of the hurdles to funding a project to save the island is that a cost-benefit analysis would be based on the number of structures on the island. Given the small number of structures, it would be difficult to justify such an expensive project.” (See opinion piece below.)

Sportfishing groups and environmentalists are calling for a partial moratorium on Virginia’s menhaden reduction fishery, citing troubling declines of certain bird and fish species that feed on them. A petition, dated Dec. 12 and signed by 18 individuals and organizations, presses the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) to ban related menhaden harvests in the state under most conditions until regulators enact a scientifically based catch limit within the Chesapeake Bay.”

“‘Oh deer’: Virginia Department of Transportation … [received] $600K to identify roads with most wildlife collisions…. The Department said the funding will allow for the construction of wildlife crossings over and below busy roads, as well as increased fencing, improved tracking and mapping tools and more.”

“A new cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will enable scientists to implement a first-of-its-kind study investigating fish behavior in response to offshore wind turbine installation and related construction activities. This study will use fine-scale positioning technology and be conducted at the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) research site, located approximately 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, according to The Nature Conservancy.”

Norfolk has set aside millions of dollars to identify and replace lead pipes across the city and recent tranches [i.e., portions] of federal funding could help as water authorities across the nation gear up to meet regulations recently proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]…. A review of which pipes are made of what materials is underway, but the city has until October to complete its review. [SA city public utilities spokesperson described the review as] ‘a massive undertaking ….’ The EPA proposed a strict new rule that would require utilities across the country to replace most lead water service lines within 10 years. The EPA also proposed that cities create a materials inventory, make improvements for water quality testing and create a plan to accomplish the replacement of lead pipe….”

Thanks to a grant from the National Park Service (NPS), “more than 163-acres associated with two Civil War battles … known as Siegen Forest … is being forever protected from subdivision and future development. It is a key riverfront property laced with layered history, located… at a crossroads, facing intense development interest…. The history goes beyond the Civil War. ‘Human communities have occupied this area for nearly 12,000 years, drawn by the rich flora, fauna and mineral resources in the river environment, as well as by the shallows that provide a point of crossing over the waterway, that for centuries served as a transportation highway,’ according to the [NPS]…. The park service … released an article, ’Conservation at the Crossroads: Preserving Siegen Forest at Chancellorsville’.”

Opinions, Commentaries, and Blogs

Three years after the Environmental Justice Act, state continues to fail Virginians” – Commentary by Victoria Higgins on the Virginia Reliability ProjectRoanoke Times and Richmond Times Dispatch

Offshore Wind’s Bright Future: Why recent industry woes do not tell the full story of offshore wind power in the United States” by a National Resources Defense Council clean energy advocate in its Climate and Clean Energy Program

Offshore wind leases can and should bring revenue to states” by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ energy modernization project director and the CEO of the Conservative Energy Network The Hill

Setting the record straight on Avangrid’s Kitty Hawk wind project” by the chief development officer for Avangrid – The Virginian-Pilot

Solar for schools and nonprofits is under siege. Fortunately, there’s a simple fix” by a lawyer and a longtime volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter – Virginia Mercury

“Southwest Va.’s energy transition [to small nuclear reactors] excludes its most important stakeholders: Southwest Virginians” by an Associate Professor of Biology and Vice President of the Clinch Coalition – Virginia Mercury

Investment in high-speed rail will benefit Virginia, Hampton Roads” by Editorial Board of The Virginian‑Pilot

Subsidence threatens Hampton Roads’ future” by a Virginia Beach resident and U.S. Navy veteran – The Virginian-Pilot

Let’s pay farmers for outcomes that restore Va. rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay” by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia Senior Scientist

Journeys of Hope, Reflections and Pictures 2023…. Our Epic Journey to Renewable Energy,” blogpost by an Augusta County farmer’s blog Getting More on the Ground

The Plain Truth about Climate Change in Virginia” by a retired mechanical engineer who favors investments in adaptation over reducing carbon emissions – Bacon’s Rebellion

Check out …

  • This NOAA summary of Virginia weather and climate disaster events since 1980 that resulted in losses of at least $1 billion. “These events included 12 drought events, 4 flooding events, 3 freeze events, 47 severe storm events, 21 tropical cyclone events, and 18 winter storm events. Overall, these events resulted in the deaths of 6,760 people and had significant economic effects on the areas impacted. The 1980–2022 annual average is 2.3 events (CPI-adjusted); the annual average for the most recent 5 years (2018–2022) is 6.2 events (CPI-adjusted).”
  • This relatively short video by a 50-year Yellowstone “winterkeeper” and see the beauty of the park and its wildlife during the long cold winter.
  • This upcoming webinar, “How to Prune Landscape Trees’, Jan. 16 from 7 to 9 pm. Learn the best practices for pruning landscape trees to improve their health and appearance while reducing the risk of branch failure. The focus will be mainly on young landscape trees. Register here.
  • This 10-minute video by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC),” Transforming coal mines to shared solar.” Learn “about solar projects that share clean energy benefits with entire communities — including former coal communities — without placing the cost on individuals.”
  • Six reasons to be optimistic about the energy transition.”
  • The Guardian’s series called “The Alternatives” that documents how and where “Around the world, local communities and governments are coming up with ideas for how to create a low carbon way of life. While you’re at it, sign up for Down to Earth to find environment-connected stories on many subjects and in many locations.
  • One or more of these e-news outlets and organizations that collectively provide coverage of Virginia environmental and energy news (* indicates subscription required):
  • Augusta Free Press
  • Axios
  • Bacon’s Rebellion
  • Canary Media
  • Cardinal News
  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation
  • DCist
  • Farmville Herald
  • FFax Now
  • Harrisonburg Citizen
  • Herald-Courier
  • Inside Climate News
  • Inside Nova
  • Institute for Local Self-Reliance
  • Loudoun Now
  • Martinsville Bulletin
  • National Defense Resource Council
  • New York Times*
  • Prince William Times
  • RepublicEn
  • Richmond Times-Dispatch*
  • Roanoke Rambler
  • Roanoke Times*
  • Southeast Energy News
  • Southern Environmental Law Center
  • Virginia Business
  • Virginia Conservatives for Clean Energy
  • Virginia Mercury
  • Virginia Public Access Project
  • Virginia Public Media
  • Virginian-Pilot*
  • Washington Post*
  • WDBJ
  • WHRO
  • Winchester Star
  • WRIC

Why not …

  • Celebrate New Year’s Day with a hike at a Virginia State Park? “Virginia’s state parks will host a number of First Day Hikes, an annual New Year’s Day tradition across the country. Parking is free at all Virginia State Park locations on Jan. 1, and visitors will receive a First Day Hike sticker while supplies last…. A full list of First Day Hikes is online. (Seven Bends State Park is located in Shenandoah County.)
  • Repurpose your Christmas tree rather than trash it? Here are suggestions for how to do that.
  • Head to Richmond on one of the Virginia Conservation Network-sponsored Lobby Days? Water Lobby Day is January 30. Conservation Lobby Day is January 31. Register here. Track bills here.
  • Join Virginia League of Conservation Voters 2024 Virginia Legislative Session Environmental Defense Virtual Climate Champions Team? On January 10 at 5:30 you can learn how to make a big difference in passing climate legislation. Register here.
  • Download this free guide to going solar developed by Solar United Neighbors (SUN), a non-profit that assists folks to do just that? Get your questions answered by SUN’s Help Desk, also free.
  • Take a listen to one or more of the songs, written by a Harrisonburg resident, on his website, Musical Scalpel? Echoing the sentiment in the quote provided in the introduction to this piece (above), and taking it perhaps a step further, the songwriter says “Many observers have concluded that the 21st century may be a kind of pass-fail exam for the human species, and all the other species we have endangered by habitat destruction and by disrupting earth’s previously stable climate. Earth will survive just fine, but will we?”
  • Enjoy “paddling, biking, running, hiking, climbing, fishing, hunting, caving and backcountry skiing” in Giles County? And, while you’re at it, “experience the beauty of the picturesque Mill Creek and Mercy Branch waterfalls, the peaceful woods that connect to the Jefferson National Forest and the Appalachian Trail, the spectacular Sentinel Point overlook” reachable by trails built by a 72-year old county resident.
  • Join the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Statewide Virtual Community Meeting? It’s part of a Climate Pollution Reduction Grant (CPRG) awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). DEQ hosted five in-person community meetings in December, including one in Harrisonburg, and now is extending the invitation to residents throughout the Commonwealth. At this virtual meeting, DEQ will solicit ideas for measures that could rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Virginia. The feedback gathered at this meeting will enable DEQ to develop a short-term priority action plan that includes projects that would then compete for part of a $4.3 billion implementation fund. The virtual meeting will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 9, from 6-7:30 p.m. Register for the meeting here.

The Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV) is a non-profit, grassroots group in the Central Shenandoah Valley that educates legislators and the public about the implications of the Earth’s worsening climate crisis.

Scroll to the top of the page

Hosting & Maintenance by eSaner

Thanks for reading The Citizen!

We’re glad you’re enjoying The Citizen, winner of the 2022 VPA News Sweepstakes award as the best online news site in Virginia! We work hard to publish three news stories every week, and depend heavily on reader support to do that.