Piedmont Environmental Council Statement on Department of Environmental Quality Variance Withdrawal

Julie Bolthouse, Director of Land Use
Piedmont Environmental Council
jbolthouse@pecva.org; 540-347-2334, x7042

Data Center along the W&OD Trail in Loudoun County. Generators are the box-trailer shaped structures to the right of the building. Photo by Hugh Kenny, PEC.

WARRENTON VA. (April 12, 2023) –  The Virginia Department of Environmental Equality’s withdrawal of its proposed variance that would have allowed data centers to circumvent Virginia’s air pollution control regulations limiting the use of heavily polluting, industrial sized, emergency diesel generators is a step in the right direction, and although we’d like to think it’s an indication that DEQ recognizes its waiver would be harmful to human health and the environment, the DEQ notice unfortunately makes it clear that the agency has done the right thing for the wrong reason. 

The Data Center Coalition, made up of big data center companies like Amazon, Google and CyrusOne, asked that the variance be pulled because of technical, federal regulatory, and operational challenges to its implementation. One aspect they highlight is that Dominion does not have a demand response program, which usually incentivizes or compensates large users of electricity to shed electrical load during peak demand. DEQ responded by pulling the variance and assuring that it “stands ready to assist in ensuring that Virginians have a reliable, affordable, clean, and growing supply of energy.”

That’s a disappointing statement given that it is not even close to DEQ’s mission. Rather, DEQ was created “to promote the health and well-being of the Commonwealth’s citizens, residents, and visitors.” And yet, DEQ’s variance withdrawal failed to acknowledge the significant public health impact of the more than 4,000 highly-polluting, industrial-sized diesel generators, over 11GW worth. Diesel exhaust has well-known human health impacts, especially on vulnerable populations like children and the elderly, leading to serious health conditions like asthma and respiratory illnesses and worsening existing heart and lung disease. In addition, these emissions further contribute to greenhouse gas emissions from the dramatic increase of fossil fuels resulting in regional ground-level ozone, acid rain, and global climate change.

Although the people of Virginia won this battle, the issue of explosive energy demand from continued data center development is something Virginia needs to get a handle on. Data centers have been and continue to be approved at a rapid pace and built without the necessary energy infrastructure to support them. As a result, backup diesel generators could increasingly be put to use in Loudoun County and throughout northern Virginia as power becomes even more constrained, putting public health at risk.  

The Piedmont Environmental Council’s mission is to protect and restore the lands and waters of the Virginia Piedmont, while also building strong and resilient communities. Founded in 1972, PEC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and accredited land trust. Learn more at www.pecva.org.