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Planned solar facility stirs concerns in Chase City / February 05, 2020

More than 25 residents of Chase City gathered at Butler Memorial Library on Saturday to discuss a 114-megawatt solar generation facility that has been proposed for a 2,544-acre site along the northwestern border of Mecklenburg County.

The 7 Bridges solar project is planned by Longroad Energy, a Boston, Mass.-based renewable energy developer.

The meeting was called by South Hill attorney John M. Janson, who said he represents nearby landowners who oppose the project. Janson did not identify his clients, but said the purpose of Saturday’s meeting was to assemble a group of concerned citizens who, like his clients, oppose the project and who are willing to take a public stand against it.

For those who are undecided as whether to support or oppose this new solar facility, Janson suggested they drive down Spanish Grove Road near Chase City where two separate solar fields are in development. “It looks like a war zone,” he said.

He encouraged the library audience to attend Longroad Energy’s public hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 5:45 p.m. at the Estes Community Center. There, Longroad officials are expected to explain the 7 Bridges project and answer questions from the public.

Janson also called on residents to attend a Feb. meeting of the Mecklenburg County Planning Commission, at which time planning board members will review Longroad’s project for compliance with the county’s comprehensive plan and take public comments.

Speaking to the audience on Saturday, Janson claimed the 7 Bridges project size is five miles long and will front 19,000 feet along the Meherrin River. He was quickly corrected by a person in the audience who did not give her name. She said the site runs from the “Grasshopper” solar facility under construction at the corner of Highways 47 and 49 in Chase City to Scotts Crossroads Bridge.

The northern border of the land for the solar project abuts the Meherrin River, which Janson called “highly erodible and sensitive land.” According to Mecklenburg County Zoning Administrator Robert Hendrick, the Meherrin River is a scenic river.

This solar field is near the South Meherrin River, which is not designated as scenic.

Matt Levine, development director for Longroad Energy, attended Saturday’s meeting and said he had not planned to speak, but he was “hesitant to leave discussions about the [7 Bridges] plans to rumor. We go above and beyond to maintain the rural character.”

Less than 500 total acres of the 2,500-acre site will be covered with solar panels and only 942 of those acres will be fenced off for the solar field, Levin explained. The balance of the property will remain covered with existing trees. In fact, the entire field will be surrounded by mature trees that will shield the panels from public view.

He noted, too, that the property has been used as timberland for several years, not for growing crops or grazing animals.

Levine added that the scenic portion of the Meherrin River ends six miles from the proposed project, and the site in question lies nearby the South Meherrin River which is not designated as scenic. Even so, he said, the viewshed from the river will continue to be shielded from the project with a 300-foot buffer of existing, mature trees.

Many of those in attendance said they were blindsided by news of the solar project, though Levine said the county was supposed to have notified all adjacent landowners last fall.

Nancy Wood, whose home sits off Highway 49 near the proposed 7 Bridges site, said she was upset that “unnamed men were putting pink flags in her yard.” She said none of the officials she contacted could explain the purpose of the flags or who was performing what appeared to be survey work.

She also expressed concerns about potential toxic materials emanating from the solar panels. She told Janson, “I’m a nurse and I don’t want to breathe in something that will affect my health.”

Others shared similar concerns about the impact of toxic materials used in making the panels would have on their health and their land. Other concerns involved the impact of water run-off from the land into nearby streams and rivers, since the proposed site map lacked evidence of retention ponds and other stormwater protections. Charlie Ramsey asked that someone explain the fiscal impact this project would have on Mecklenburg County.

Monty Hightower was the only person in attendance not affiliated with the project, to speak positively about the impacts of solar energy, and its efficiency as a heating source.

The audience questions went unanswered, though Levine did offer to share reports of studies proving there were no harmful side effects from solar panels or solar fields.

It was Beverly Wood who was first to raise an oft-heard question about solar power: “Why are we so lucky? Why are so many solar companies interested in locating near Chase City?”

She suggested developer companies see local residents as naive and of low economic status, making them more amenable to solar projects compared to people living in the more affluent areas of northern Virginia. She also chastised Levine by telling him that his company had angered and alienated area residents by their handling of the project so far.

Levine attempted to allay their fears, offering to share an independent study proving the panels were not filled with toxic materials or did not emit harmful byproducts. However, some photovoltaic cells are coated in Teflon, a fact not disputed by Levine.

Wood, who holds a master’s degree in chemistry, offered a quick retort. “Anything Teflon, I won’t touch.” She encouraged those uniformed about the hazards of Teflon to view the movie “Dark Waters.” It is the story of near decade-long legal battle with Dupont chemical company, which was polluting the land and waters around Parkersburg, W.Va., with toxic sludge filled with PFOA-C8, a cancer-causing, man-made chemical used in the production of Teflon.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA is a toxic substance but is no longer used in the manufacture of Teflon in the U.S. It is, however, stilled used in Teflon production in China. One of the concerns raised by Janson was that the panels used at these local solar farms come from China. Levine said their panels are assembled in the U.S. but did not elaborate on where the component parts are manufactured.

Janson shared his view that the solar industry is “not a rosy clean industry” and Wood added that “we need to pay attention to what we have going on at our property.”

At least one unidentified resident suggested that Chase City should consider becoming a clean energy town. The majority of those present appeared to side with Janson when he said, “Let’s figure out what we’re dealing with before we add more.”

Nothing was concluded at the meeting, but the consensus appeared to side with the need for more information.

The next opportunity for the public to learn more about the 7 Bridges project will take place Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 6:45 p.m. at the Estes Center when officials with Longroad Energy will be on hand to answer questions.

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