Rev. F. Wayne Henley, C5 co-directors La’Veesha Allen Rollins and Wanda Roberts, and Dana Roberts
Members of Concerned Citizens of Charles City County meet regularly at Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Providence Forge. From left are the Rev. F. Wayne Henley, C5 co-directors La’Veesha Allen Rollins and Wanda Roberts, and Dana Roberts, Wanda's daughter. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

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CHARLES CITY COUNTY, Va. — After leading efforts to block a 1,100-megawatt natural gas plant in their rural backyard this summer, it would be understandable if a local grassroots group opted to close up shop.

No more exhausting marathon meetings. No more sifting for key nuggets in piles of arcane documents. And no more scrambling for donations to sustain their endeavor.

The thought of such liberation was tempting after two-plus years of doggedness, said La’Veesha Allen Rollins and Wanda Roberts, co-directors of Concerned Citizens of Charles City County, or C5.

But the group is not about to quit — not with three more equally consequential energy issues looming in their county. 

The first two are the proposed 1,650-megawatt Chickahominy Power Plant and its accompanying 83-mile natural gas pipeline. A third is a request by the local landfill to enlarge its footprint. The dump collaborates with a third party to capture enough gas to generate electricity for roughly 2,000 homes.

“We’re the voice,” said Roberts, seated in a room near the sanctuary of Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Providence Forge, C5’s in-person hub. “I can’t walk away from this. That’s not an option anymore. We’re too heavily invested.”

From a facing table, Allen Rollins nodded vigorously.

“We’re putting in all this work and effort to do right by the community,” she said about their disappointment with local officials’ nonresponsiveness. “We’re not getting paid for it. The people who are getting paid to do it aren’t doing it.” 

Fending off polluting infrastructure isn’t the co-directors’ only goal. They want C5 to become a go-to organization that sets an agenda for community well-being. Achievements can be as small as purchasing basketballs and water bottles for underfunded school athletic teams and as expansive as hiring professionals to conduct baseline air, water and soil studies near proposed energy projects. 

“We want to empower our residents,” Allen Rollins said. “Nobody wants to feel helpless. Nobody should lose their home or health because somebody is developing something.”

C5, with a core of six members and thousands of individual and group supporters, has no doubt that developers of the pair of gas plants targeted their county because they figured nobody would complain. The energy overtures have a strong whiff of environmental racism as close to half of the roughly 7,000 residents are Black and 7% are Native American.

The coastal plain county, wedged between the James River and one of its main tributaries, the Chickahominy, is in Dominion Energy’s service territory. Its county seat, Charles City, is 33 miles southeast of Richmond. 

Tourist attractions in a county that boasts about being founded in 1634 are historic plantations, many along the Virginia Capital Trail, a 50-plus mile bikeway connecting Richmond to Jamestown. 

The mammoth Chickahominy Power Station, which is still on the table, and the Charles City Combined-Cycle Gas Turbine plant (C4GT), canceled in July, were slated to be built about a mile apart in what locals call the Roxbury industrial corridor.

Plans for both were circulating among government officials several years before 2020 when the Virginia General Assembly passed the landmark Virginia Clean Economy Act. It requires Dominion to decarbonize the grid by 2045 and Appalachian Power to follow suit by 2050.

Neither power plant is affiliated with a utility. As merchant generators, they would sell directly to PJM, the regional transmission organization that coordinates the wholesale electricity market spanning Washington, D.C., Virginia and 12 other states. Developers likely pegged their long-term viability on a provision that allows gas to serve as a grid backup if reliability is at risk. Still, operators would have to comply with the carbon cap restrictions and expenses of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which Virginia recently joined.

Michigan-based NOVI Energy had its eye on building the Charles City Combined-Cycle Gas Turbine plant, or C4GT, years ago — prompting the county in 2015 to give developers 88 acres not far from the landfill. The state Department of Environmental Quality approved a stationary source air permit in April 2018.

Then, in June 2018, Balico LLC, the parent company of Herndon-based Chickahominy Power LLC, in northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, announced it expected construction on a separate plant to be complete by spring 2022. The state approved its air permit in 2019.

Dominion Energy’s Chickahominy substation appears to sprout from a field of cotton along Charles City County’s Roxbury industrial corridor. Such grid infrastructure is crucial for any energy hub. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

A rude awakening

None of those advances caused a public stir locally because few were aware of what was brewing.

Allen Rollins, whose family has a multigenerational presence in the county, has served as the church clerk at Cedar Grove Baptist for years. In a county with limited internet access until recently, the region’s 13 churches across the county served as town criers, circulating vital news via weekly announcements.

“Until about six months ago, everything was word of mouth,” she said. “We never heard about any power plant.”

That changed in June 2019 when advocates with the Sierra Club and Mothers Out Front, from outside the county, tipped off residents that the Chickahominy plant’s air permit was on the verge of being approved.

Mothers Out Front quickly organized an educational session at the county library. More than 35 residents showed up to learn more.

“It turned into a yelling match,” Roberts said about the raucous affair that pitted residents with questions against one county board supervisor who defended the local government’s decision to welcome the Chickahominy plant. “When we stood outside the library talking afterward, we realized we needed to organize and get information. That’s when the pastor invited us to meet at Cedar Grove.”

One helpful takeaway from that event: Residents learned that the State Air Pollution Control Board would be meeting in two days to review Chickahominy’s air permit. Several residents made the 90-minute drive to Chesterfield, but were denied the chance to participate. They were told the state’s official comment period had already ended.

Feeling defeated, residents flocked to the county board of supervisors regular meeting later in June. They were told that not only was the Chickahominy plant a done deal, but another similar plant, the C4GT, had already been approved. Supervisors wouldn’t field their questions.

“We felt silenced,” Roberts said. “If we tried to speak about it, we were hushed.”

Allen Rollins just wanted supervisors to explain, in plain terms, how and why two such plants would be a boon for the county.

“This was all foreign to us,” she said. If they are so safe, “why are all of these people contacting us with red flags?”

It seemed to them that their elected officials were more interested in gaining tax revenue than informing residents and protecting them from harmful pollutants.

That confirmed their earlier instinct to start digging for answers themselves.

“With what we were up against — money, power, influence — we realized we had to unite yesterday,” Allen Rollins said.

Digging in

“At the beginning, we didn’t even know what a fracked gas plant was,” said Roberts, upon discovering that both power plants would be fueled by gas from the Marcellus shale play, which is concentrated in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. “You go in knowing nothing. Once you start learning, you want to know more.”

As C5 took shape, members’ energy vocabularies expanded as professors, nonprofit groups and other mentors taught them the intricacies of gas turbines, pipeline shutoff valves, stranded assets and particulate matter.

The group understood that the county craved economic development, so their initial impulse was to engage in conversations with government officials about exactly how gas plants would fit that bill and also protect citizens’ health.

“We’re not anti-development and we’re not about attacking and destroying,” Allen Rollins explained. 

When none of those answers was forthcoming, C5 pivoted to “we’re stopping this because this is not going to be good for our county,” Roberts said.

That led them to align with the Stop the Abuse of Virginian Energy coalition and to delegate tasks among core members to maximize their impact. For instance, Roberts, a retired paralegal, zeroed in on public records requests and Allen Rollins, who works in architecture and interior design, focused on research and data spreadsheets.

While board supervisors jokingly credited them for raising attendance at meetings that usually attract audiences in the single digits, they also labeled them as agitators.

“We see that as a badge of honor,” said the Rev. F. Wayne Henley, a pastor for 18 years at the Baptist church where C5 meets once again now that in-person, masked gatherings are allowed.

Henley met resistance from county officials years ago when he asked them to commission a study about the health impacts of the landfill operated by Waste Management on county-owned land. Its original operating permit was issued in 1989. Neighbors have long complained about the stench that wafts from the Chambers Road facility. 

The pastor, who lives outside the county, said he joined C5 because he feels responsible for serving all of God’s people, whether or not they live within the county’s boundaries. 

“I have to stand up and speak for them when they can’t speak for themselves,” Henley said.

Allen Rollins grew up hearing that the 627-acre landfill would change local lives because of the income it would provide for the county. Recalling those childhood messages set off alarm bells when government officials promised the pair of power plants would deliver the same bounty.

That prompted her to delve into the history of the landfill site. By working with historians and others, she’s in the beginning stages of research about Civil War battles involving U.S. Colored Troops on or near the property.

She doesn’t want her home county to lose its rural charm, but she wants it to thrive as surrounding counties do without inviting landfills and fossil fuel-powered plants to prop up their tax base. 

As a Black woman, she’s fully aware why residents with a long history of being silenced are fearful of opening their mouths to question government decisions. The threat of intimidation is real, not imagined.

“It’s time to take back our community,” she said. “We want to use our strengths to better the community we live in and empower our residents.” 

‘Together, we are one really good person’

Both Allen Rollins, 39, and Roberts, 70, who is White, were a bit flummoxed recently when a national nonprofit organization asked them to discuss how C5 created a racially diverse organization when so many justice groups talk about it but struggle to do so.

Collaboration happened organically, they said, because like-minded people bonded over their frustration with government officials being less than forthcoming.

The co-directors learned to listen to each other so they could play to each other’s strengths. Neither minced words about the struggles they faced growing up and those frank conversations built trust and a caring bond.

“I can’t walk in her shoes and she can’t walk in mine,” Roberts said about their rapport. “So we both have to speak.”

Roberts, speaking in the local vernacular, notes that she’s a “come here” because she was born and raised in Richmond, and didn’t move permanently to Charles City County until 2006. Allen Rollins is a “born here,” even though she moved to adjacent New Kent County as an adult because the schools are a better fit for her children.

“Together,” Roberts said, smiling broadly, “we are one really good person.”

In July, NOVI Energy said it had abandoned the C4GT project because it lacked community support. C5 organizers knew more factors contributed to the plant’s failure, but beating it back was an emotional boost to a group that admitted to being on the verge of burnout. 

They had been hopeful about C4GT’s demise since December when the State Corporation Commission turned down a request from Virginia Natural Gas to extend its pipeline infrastructure to provide fuel for the proposed plant.

Refreshed by the C4GT victory, C5 is not relenting on the Chickahominy gas plant until it meets the same fate. The pipeline that would supply its fuel is routed across 392 parcels in Charles City and four other counties.

One piece of the county’s energy hub that seems to be on track is a 340-megawatt solar project to be operated by Utah-based sPower, also known as the Sustainable Power Group. 

Preparation at the 2,200-acre site requires significant tree cutting because it’s former timberlands. The arrays will cover two parcels totaling 1,400 acres. Plans call for placing the remaining 800 acres into conservation.

Acres of former timberlands are being cleared in Charles City County to make way for an sPower solar project expected to generate 340 megawatts of power. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

What’s next? 

In January, outside groups familiar with the toll that local organizing can take on volunteers recommended that C5 concentrate on fundraising so they can hire a staff and cultivate a raft of specialists they can pay for projects requiring in-depth study.

At first, grants trickled in. Now, the flow is growing because the co-directors aren’t shy about explaining their needs and asking for money. For instance, they’re intent on recruiting Roberts’ daughter, Dana, for her grant-writing expertise.

Eventually, they envision becoming a solutions clearinghouse the community can turn to whether residents are in need of a meal, a repair to their home or certified training for their next job.

“What we’re doing is embarking on creating our own research and development” for the initiatives C5 opts to pursue, Allen Rollins said. “We’re not going to wait around for the government to fix it.”

The co-directors have vowed to be vigilant about holding authorities responsible.

Mantras they adhere to at public meetings have evolved to: “I’m not going to say anything I can’t prove” and “I’m going to ask questions, whether you’re going to answer or not.”

Henley, the lone church leader willing to take up the C5 cause, said he will persist even when government officials “don’t always want to hear what the pastor has to say.”

After all, as a follower of the Scriptures, he feels compelled to heed the words of the Old Testament’s Micah 6:8, which direct mortals to act justly and to love mercy.

“I know this,” Henley concluded. “The Lord will reward me for standing.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press.