West Virginia environmental regulators’ meeting to take public input on and explain an air quality permit application for a data processing facility in Morgantown yielded more questions than answers Tuesday night.
An engineer with the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Air Quality struggled to answer questions about what Marion Energy Partners LLC intends to do at the facility during the virtual meeting, saying regulators were limited in what information they could require from the company.
Morgantown-based Marion Energy Partners applied in August for an air quality permit to construct and operate a 10,000-square-foot data processing facility at 5900 Morgantown Industrial Park which consists of four natural gas-fired engines so the facility can generate its own electricity around the clock.
The facility’s name is listed as “Science Facility” in a filing with the Department of Environmental Protection.
But when Morgantown residents and elected officials asked Division of Air Quality engineer Edward Andrews for more information about the nature of planned operations at the facility, Andrews had little to offer.
“The best we know from the application is that it’s going to be a data center,” Andrews said.
The Division of Air Quality’s jurisdiction only encompasses emission sources, and unless they are powering a secondary source, the division has no authority to factor what that source is being used for into its permitting process, Department of Environmental Protection acting spokesman Terry Fletcher said in an email Wednesday.
Marion Energy Partners could not be reached for comment.
The permit application was submitted on Marion Energy Partners’ behalf by Charleston-based SLR Consulting, with representatives of Northeast Natural Energy, a Charleston-headquartered oil and gas exploration company, copied on email correspondence with environmental regulators.
A July notice of Marion Energy Partners’ air quality permit application lists the same address for the company as that of Northeast Natural Energy’s Morgantown office — 48 Donley St., Suite 601, Morgantown, WV 26501.
Brett Loflin, who joined Northeast Natural Energy as vice president of regulatory affairs in 2010, declined to comment on plans for the facility in an email Wednesday.
“As this potential project is in its infancy with detailed plans still being developed, we don’t have anything to add to the story today,” Loflin said.
But the permit application said Marion Energy Partners planned to tentatively start construction and installation of equipment used for the facility during the fourth quarter of 2021 into the first quarter of 2022 once the permit was issued. Dec. 1 was listed in Marion Energy Partners’ permit application as the anticipated startup if a permit was granted.
No emission units, natural gas production equipment or preconstruction activities were observed at the site during an October Division of Air Quality inspection.
The permit application also lists Loflin as vice president of regulatory affairs at Marion Energy Partners.
“[T]he corporate veil between Marion Energy Partners and Northeast Natural Energy is so thin as to be nonexistent,” Morgantown resident Paula Hunt said.
The permit application says the facility will share its location with a natural gas production pad that will supply gas to the generator engines to help power the facility. The fuel gas would be supplied by area wells equivalent to pipeline-quality gas at a volume of 97% methane, according to the permit application.
SLR Consulting principal engineer Jesse Hanshaw told Andrews in an August email that gas from a local gathering pipeline would provide an uninterrupted supply of fuel to the data center, according to DEP documents.
Representatives of SLR Consulting did not respond to a request for comment.
The site is believed to be designed to provide electricity for cryptocurrency mining, a process of creating new units of digital currency that requires large amounts of energy for computing.
Hunt said she feared the facility could contribute significant noise pollution, as bitcoin mining facilities have prompted complaints about fan noise from power generated for facility computers.
Bitcoin is a digital currency that users can buy, sell or exchange directly without government or bank oversight.
Andrews noted in response to questions from Morgantown Mayor Jenny Selin that sound was not a consideration in air quality permitting, and that changes in federal or state law would be needed to add sound as a criterion in air permits.
The virtual meeting attracted more than 40 attendees and lasted two hours. Commenters demanded more information about the project and urged the DEP not to grant the permit.
“Morgantown and the Monongalia community is being treated like a mushroom,” said Bill Reger-Nash, a retired public health professor West Virginia University and former state delegate. “That is, we’re kept in the dark and we’re surrounded with horse manure.”
Fletcher said the state has permitted what he called similar sources in West Virginia: a computing center for the U.S. Department of the Treasury in Berkeley County, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Clarksburg site and a military training facility for the West Virginia National Guard in Preston County.
“The WVDEP cannot speculate as to the nature of operations at these facilities, nor are the permittees required to disclose that information,” Fletcher said. “DAQ’s jurisdiction over these sites begins and ends with the emission sources.”
But Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, said Wednesday he will draft legislation to address permit applicants not specifying planned operations when seeking environmental permits.
Hansen, an environmental consultant, said that Marion Energy Partners’ application was the first he had seen where the purpose of the facility was not stated.
“For public transparency, and to allow the permitting agency to properly vet the permit, every application should clearly state the facility’s purpose,” Hansen said.
Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said Northeast Energy should be given an opportunity to “demonstrate that they want to be good neighbors” by meeting with people who will be affected by the facility and their representatives.
“Those who are nearby this project deserve to have a more straight-forward explanation about the pros and cons of the project,” Fleischauer said in an email Wednesday.
Selin lamented that the DEP was not requiring more specificity about plans for the facility, while Morgantown City Council member Bill Kawecki expressed doubt that the facility would offer any economic benefit to the community.
“[I]n the absence of any other information, this project is unacceptable,” Mon Valley Clean Air Coalition coordinator and Morgantown resident Duane Nichols said.
The nearest residential dwelling is about 1,128 feet away from the center of the site, with some businesses roughly half that amount away, according to state environmental regulators, who found that the site is appropriate for the proposed emission units.
The draft permit sets emissions limits for each engine of 16.69 tons per year of nitrogen oxides and 33.68 tons per year of carbon monoxide. Each engine is to be equipped with an oxidation catalyst air pollution control device, according to the permit.
Marion Energy Partners is required to obtain a permit in part because the four proposed engines’ potential emissions exceed 6 pounds per hour and 10 tons per year for nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds.
“One of my biggest concerns is that there are no apparent local benefits,” Hansen said. “No jobs, economic benefits, or community benefits. But what the community does get is increased air emissions and noise pollution.”
Air quality-related comments on the draft permit must be received by 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 13, and can be emailed to Andrews at Edward.S.Andrews@wv.gov with “Marion Energy Partners LLC” in the subject line. Comments not related to air quality may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Marion Energy Partners LLC” in the subject line.
Documents can be accessed at https://dep.wv.gov/daq/permitting/Pages/NSR-Permit-Applications.aspx.