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Northern Virginia data center construction stirs environmental and industry coalitions

Washington Construction News staff writer

Several environmental and community organizations have formed a coalition to seek controls on what they consider to be unbridled data center construction in Northern Virginia

The data center industry has responded, agreeing with the idea that the state needs to study data centers’ cumulative impact.

The Virginia Data Center Reform Coalition’s held its first press conference in early December at the Clearbrook Center for the Arts in Lake Ridge.

Speakers represeinting the Piedmont Environmental Council, Virginia House of Delegates, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the Sierra Club, and the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, attended the event.

Northern Virginia has the world’s highest concentration of data centers.

“Historic preservation and climate advocacy groups, along with homeowners associations and community representatives from all over the state, have joined together to call for statewide reform of the data center industry,” said Julie Bolthouse, land use director of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “This wide-reaching grassroots response has arisen as large data center campuses continue to be proposed in close proximity to homes, parks, and sensitive environmental and historic sites like wetlands and cemeteries.”

Most speakers were deeply concerned with the environmental sustainability of continued data center construction, the Fairfax County Times reported. “They stressed that few regulations on this industry are creating a pressing problem for the region’s natural spaces, the story published on Dec. 8 says.

“It has become clear to us that an unregulated data center industry represents the single greatest unified threat to national parks that we have ever encountered in Virginia,” said NCPA Mid-Atlantic program manager Kyle Hart.

The data centre boom’s environmental impact could be wide-reaching, requiring changes  to the region’s water use and air quality regulations.

“The impacts go beyond adjacency as massive transmission lines, water withdrawal permits, and air permits for the operation of hundreds of large diesel generators to meet the needs of this ever-increasing data center footprint come rolling in all over our state,” said Bolthouse.

Organizers with the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter also expressed concern over increased fossil fuel usage, as increases in fossil fuel production are part of Dominion Energy’s 15-year plan to accommodate continued data center construction, the published report says.

“You cannot separate the data centers from the climate crisis because Dominion Energy, our largest utility, our largest power supporter, and also our largest polluter, is using them as an excuse to build a new fleet of fossil fuel tanks,” said Tim Cywinski, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter’s communications manager. “They have pointed exclusively to data centers as justification. Not any other factor. It is data centers and data centers alone that Dominion Energy is using as an excuse.”

In response, another coalition, with the similar name, The Data Center Coalition, representing the data center industry, says that data centers enable the 21st century economy, and defended their record on community involvement

“Data centers provide the digital infrastructure that supports our 21st-century economy,” Josh Levi, president of the Data Center Coalition, told Data Center Dynamics (DCD). “They enable apps, platforms, and services we rely on every day to keep us safe and connected in our modern digital lives, from transportation and banking to public safety, education, and life-saving medical care. The data center industry is growing to meet the collective computing demands of individuals and organizations of all sizes.”

Levy says his group’s members are “committed to growing the industry in a manner that prioritizes investments in local communities,” adding that the sector employs hundreds of construction professionals as facilities are built, and provides “quality, high-wage jobs” when the data centers are up and running.

“Every data center comes with years of reliable support for local economies – including everything from restaurants, hotels, rental car agencies, and fiber and HVAC installers, to many other small businesses,” Levy said.

He lauded data center owners and operators for their “leadership and commitment to decarbonization through clean energy,” and pointed out that consumers need data center services for clean energy gadgets such as smart thermostats, smart meters, automated lighting, and household appliances.

Levy welcomed the Reform Coalition’s call for a state-led study into the cumulative impact of data centers, adding: “The data center industry takes accountability seriously and works closely with the many local, state, regional, and federal bodies responsible for permitting and project approvals, regulation in environmental, safety and other key areas, and oversight.”

Mark Buckshon
Mark Buckshonhttps://washingtonconstructionnews.com
Mark Buckshon is the publisher and interim editor of Washington Construction News. He is also president of the Construction News and Report Group of Companies. He combines a journalism and business background, and has published construction trade publications for more than 30 years, after an earlier career in journalism, which culminated when he lived through the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe in 1978-80 as a sub-editor for the Bulawayo Chronicle and a correspondent for a Canadian news service.

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