The fight over a controversial natural-gas powered compressor station in Northwest Charles County has gone interstate following an announcement Tuesday that the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in Virginia was launching a campaign to oppose its construction.
The announcement of the “Save George Washington’s View” campaign was accompanied by news from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that it has added Mount Vernon and Piscataway Park in Charles and Prince George’s Counties to its list of the 11 most endangered historic places for 2018.
“In no way does a natural gas compressor station belong in this mission-protected, historic landscape,” the MVLA stated in a press release. “The MVLA vehemently urges Dominion to find a more suitable location.”
Dominion Energy Cove Point LLC is seeking to build two natural-gas turbines on part of a 50-acre parcel located off Barrys Hill Road that the company owns. The property is adjacent to a parcel of Piscataway Park property and near many properties that have had conservation easements placed on them to help preserve the view from Mount Vernon.
The turbines would pump natural gas through an underground pipeline that runs through northern Charles County that terminates at the Cove Point LNG terminal in Calvert County.
In March, the Charles County Board of Appeals voted to deny Dominion’s request for a special zoning exception to allow it to build the compressor station, a decision it reiterated in May.
Dominion is suing the Charles County government and the board of appeals in federal district court seeking to overturn the board’s vote.
MVLA is concerned about the potential visual impact of the compressor station’s exhaust stacks on the view across the Potomac River from the Mount Vernon mansion, called a “viewshed.”
It is also concerned about the risk posed by a natural gas fire or explosion on nearby homes and businesses.
The historic site’s campaign against the compressor station was announced with a press conference featuring comments by MVLA’s regent Sarah Miller Coulson, its new president and CEO Doug Bradburn and Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The backdrop for the press conference was the view across the Potomac in the direction of the proposed compressor station.
In early May, Bradburn wrote to Dominion Energy chairman of the board, president and CEO Thomas Farrell II dated early last month saying that MVLA had been “surprised” to learn about the plans to build a compressor station at the site.
However, documents show that MVLA has been aware of the compressor since at least late 2016, when MVLA members attended an open house presentation to discuss the project.
A study commissioned by MVLA to assess whether the station would be visible from across the river found that it would not.
“It was determined that clearing the building site and construction of the proposed structure would not result in direct visibility of the compressor station from any of the viewer locations at Mount Vernon,” the study concluded.
“Additionally, it is unlikely that clearing the building site itself would impact the viewshed from Mount Vernon due to the underlying topography between the building site and Mount Vernon as well as the protected states of much of the landscape between Mount Vernon and the proposed site,” the conclusion continued.
MVLA says that it did not “approve” the visibility test from the compressor site because the test only assessed whether a 50-foot exhaust stack would be visible from Mount Vernon — the height that Dominion, in conjunction with the Charles County Department of Planning and Growth Management, settled on to keep the stacks below the sightline.
MVLA argues that “conflicting information” provided by Dominion suggests that the exhaust towers could be more than double the height that Dominion has stated the stacks will be, and that the visibility of such taller stacks was not tested.
The proposed compressor station is part of Dominion’s $147.3 million Eastern Market Access project, which involves upgrading the 88-mile-long Cove Point Pipeline to provide gas to residential and commercial customers of Washington Gas Light Company and Mattawoman Energy.
Opponents argue that Dominion actually intends to use the compressor station to increase output to the Cove Point LNG terminal, not to serve future residential customers.
In addition to the denial of the special zoning exception by the county’s appeals board, the station has met with strong opposition from residents of Bryans Road and the nearby Moyaone Reserve.
Residents packed public hearings that were convened by the Maryland Department of the Environment to seek comment on the granting of air quality and groundwater removal permits, urging MDE to conduct independent studies instead of relying on data provided by Dominion or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has oversight of natural gas facilities.
“We’re not sure why they reversed their position,” said Dominion Energy Cove Point spokesperson Karl Neddenien. “At the outset, they were supportive of the project.”
Neddenien said that much of the information that the MVLA has been distributing about the compressor station is inaccurate.
For example, Neddenien pointed to an illustration on the campaign’s website showing two exhaust stacks visible above the tree lines, emitting clouds of water vapor.
Neddenien said that the exhaust stacks will be 50 feet tall, well below the visible sightline, and will not emit steam clouds when the turbines are operating.
“We’ve been working with [MVLA] cooperatively and collaboratively, and we were surprised and taken aback by their decision to suddenly oppose the process in which they had been involved all along.”
A wide array of historic preservation organizations have joined MVLA’s campaign as partners, including the Accokeek Foundation, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, Preservation Maryland and the American Battlefield Trust.
The designation of Mount Vernon and Piscataway Park as endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Places is a way to draw local and national attention to unique structures and locations that are in danger of being lost to development or neglect. Every year, the Trust identifies 11 sites to add to the roster of endangered places.
At the press conference, Meeks said that fewer than 5 percent of the sites on the endangered list have been permanently lost as a result of increased public awareness and support.