Incompetence or Deception? Motivation for Dominion Cove Point Permit Amendment Questioned

People were still waiting in line to get into the PSC hearing over an hour after it started./Photo by Anne Meador

A meeting hosted by the Maryland Public Service Commission drew hundreds to deliver comments on an application made by Dominion Energy Cove Point (DECP) to amend the certificate approving the LNG export facility’s power plant.

The line to get into the auditorium at Patuxent High School in Lusby, Md., stretched into the parking lot Monday night, and several people were denied the opportunity to speak because of time limitations after almost 70 people had delivered often impassioned comments to the Commission.

At issue was an audacious request made by DECP to be exempted from any restrictions on fugitive emissions of pollutants called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and the startling admission that the company’s engineers had underestimated the number of leak-potential components in the power plant by 147,700. The miscalculation increases DECP’s estimate of total emissions of VOCs from the generating station from 2.5 tons to 20.1 tons per year.

In addition, DECP says it failed to anticipate scenarios requiring back-up power in case of failure and asks for flexibility to temporarily emit more pollutants than are currently allowed in its permit during periods when back-up turbines are in operation. Annual cumulative emissions, it claims, would not be affected.

Dominion seeks approval for the permit revision only weeks before it says the project will be completed and ready for operation. The timing of the application in the final hour and Dominion Energy’s history of “coming back to the trough for more,” as one speaker put it, led to vehement condemnations of the company’s competence and trustworthiness. Cove Point supporters, on the other hand, presented Dominion’s application as a commonsense request based on the need for “reliability” and “flexibility,” backed up by “state-of-the-art” technology.

Divide and Conquer

The Cove Point issue continues to pit local residents and environmentalists against plant contract workers. Unions required many workers to attend wearing their union t-shirts and instructed them not to talk to the press.

Those who did comment played up the jobs provided by Cove Point and the benefit of gas exports for the “national interest.” Some were dismissive about residents’ concerns about leaks, saying how hard they work to prevent them. One man scoffed at the idea that leak emissions were harmful, pointing out that he has been breathing a large volume of them while working.

Inside the auditorium, they loudly cheered pro-amendment speakers and booed anti-amendment ones.

“This is not a football game,” Cove Point resident Linda Wiley said when she took the mic. “We’ll still be here when you’re long gone. I find it abhorrent that some would ask for this when it will cause asthma and leukemia.”

When Wiley finished, she was booed. The PSC moderator scolded the audience and asked those who couldn’t be “courteous” to leave.

Jacqueline Malonson tried to bridge the divide, saying she used to be an AFL-CIO worker. “I understand, I get it, but we all need clean air. It’s just common sense,” she said.

Just Another Word for Cancer

Volatile organic compound emissions combine with other chemicals in the atmosphere to form ozone, smog, greenhouse gases and toxic air pollutants (TAPs). They are known carcinogens and cause or exacerbate a wide variety of health problems, such as asthma, emphysema, pulmonary disease, kidney damage, and central nervous system damage.

“The young and elderly are most susceptible,” said Lusby resident Ken Pritchard. “It’s not if but when. How many people will get cancer and worsened pre-existing conditions? Dominion is so shameless, it’s breathtaking.”

“VOCs are just another word for cancer,” Dunkirk resident Bill Peil said.

“Governor Hogan announced last week that he was concerned about air pollution coming into our state, but he doesn’t seem to care about the pollution created in Lusby from a Virginia company, Dominion,” said Lusby resident Mark Giuffrida. “No one seems to care that this pollution will harm us, the bay or the wildlife.”

Incompetence or Plan from the Start?

Chemical engineer and Cove Point Beach resident June Sevilla/ Photo by Jeff Dixon

The EPA has determined that leaking equipment, such as valves, pumps and connectors, are the largest source of emissions of VOCs and VHAPs from petroleum refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities. A major cause of fugitive emissions from valves and connectors is failure of a seal or gasket. In its appeal to the Public Service Commission, Dominion says among the 162,700 components, there will be 88,700 access plugs associated with the heat exchangers which weren’t accounted for. It proposes to monitor all these thousands of components for leaks by implementing a work practice standard called LDAR.

“For engineering to be that far off in the calculation of piping components reflects on professional incompetence,” said June Sevilla, a chemical engineer who lives at Cove Point Beach. “But is the engineer really to blame? Or was this ‘as-built’ scenario already anticipated and the facts withheld?”

Mechanical engineer Gerald Smith had similar harsh words–and suspicions. “To increase to 160,000 components is design error and extreme design malfeasance. It’s either grossly incompetent or deliberate intent to obscure VOC leakage,” he said.

Like several speakers, Richard Morin called Dominion’s request to modify the permit “a very familiar bait-and-switch scam.” According to Morin, Dominion in essence says, “It’s too late to stop us. We’re going to do what we want to anyway.” He added, “Throwing out monitoring was the plan from the start.”

Dominion’s History of Asking for More

Morin and others referred to Dominion’s “foot-in-the-door” strategy of getting projects approved in spite of opposition, then asking for more.

For example, Dominion sought multiple upgrades for at least eight compressor stations since 2003. In some cases, applications to increase capacity were filed before construction was even completed. In the town of Myersville, Md., which tried and failed to keep Dominion from building a compressor station there, Dominion immediately requested to add another compressor unit–doubling horsepower at the site–as soon as they were permitted to begin operations. Then they gained approval to upgrade once again. Dominion promised Loudoun County officials in 2014 that they wouldn’t seek additional expansions for the Leesburg compressor station and even suggested they might downsize, yet last year they sought and gained approval to install a new 8,000 hp electric compressor unit.

Outside, Dominion opponents make their point lyrically./Photo by Jeff Dixon

Last week, a Dominion Energy vice president Dan Weekley told attendees at an energy conference that “everyone knows” that the disputed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, currently under review, will expand into South Carolina. Subsequently, Dominion contradicted Weekley’s remarks and continued to deny that the company is considering southward expansion, suuggesting that their own general manager of Southern pipeline operations either spoke out of turn or has delusions of grandeur.

Several people loudly objected at the PSC hearing when Lou Blancato, Manager of Corporate Security at Dominion Energy and until recently Security Compliance Manager at Cove Point, did not identify his affiliation with the applicant. Blancato has worked for Dominion since 2004, according to his LinkedIn profile.

“We’ve been listening to lies from Dominion for three years,” said Cove Point resident Marcia Greenberg. “This is a calculated strategy of death by a thousand cuts, bait-and-switch and divide-and-conquer among good people in the community.”