Data Center Proposal Generates Unanswered Questions

Data Center Proposal Generates Unanswered Questions – an Internet site devoted to providing information about earth and the environment – published an article last week with the headline, “What are we willing to give up for computing power?”

It referred to a research paper written by doctoral candidates at the University of California, Riverside, and stated that “The increasing demand for computing power generates a variety of environmental consequences.”

According to the paper, “In addition to water consumption, data centers consume copious amounts of electricity produced at power plants. The resulting emissions include not just carbon, contributing to global warming, but also other harmful pollutants like particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. These elements can form lung-irritating ozone.

“The pollutants generated by data centers pose significant health risks. These include increased chances of cancer, heart disease [and] shortened lifespans. Consequently, residents living near these power plants bear the brunt of these environmental and health impacts.”

It’s not surprising then that the residents of Chantilly’s Pleasant Valley community, as well as others in Fairfax County, are giving serious scrutiny to a proposal to construct a huge data center. And they hope the Board of Supervisors will do likewise and not be swayed by the large amount of tax dollars it would bring.

Pleasant Valley’s Cynthia Shang and her neighbors still have a slew of concerns that haven’t yet been addressed to their satisfaction, such as how much water the data center would use. And despite the developer’s contention that any diesel leaks will be contained onsite, they’re still worried about the possibility of contaminating the county’s drinking water.

“What are the impacts of potential fuel leaks from 27, 500-gallon diesel fuel tanks, plus the 5,000-gallon base tanks each of them would have?” Shang wondered. “And what plans are in place to ensure that any such leaks won’t negatively impact the RPA [Resource Protection Area] or the Cub Run Stream?”

Likewise, Virginia Run’s Jim Hart, a former Fairfax County planning commissioner, worries about “so much diesel fuel delivered and stored in an environmentally sensitive stream valley, as well as such an intense use adjacent to homes zoned residential conservation. What chemicals are in the particulate, and what gets into the groundwater, the Occoquan Reservoir and the food chain? Is the particulate from the diesel generators a carcinogen, and does it precipitate out in the rainwater? The applicant has been unwilling to commit to cleaner technology than diesel generators.”

Noting that Penzance also wouldn’t agree to any limitations on the data center’s electrical use, Hart said its attorney’s explanation about who’s paying for the substation “was the exact opposite of what the Land-Use Committee was previously told about the electric substation – that the infrastructure upgrade for a data center has to be funded by everyone, meaning all the consumers – or, at least, the Dominion consumers.”

In addition, said Hart, “The applicant refused to commit to any limitations on water usage. I wonder if it would commit to adding no PFAS or forever chemicals to the water?” PFAS are synthetic chemical compounds that can lead to serious health problems including reduced fertility, developmental delays and cancer.

Loudoun County already has 115 data centers, more than 40 have been built in Prince William County and more are in the pipeline in both counties. Nearly 50 already exist in Fairfax County, including one along Route 50 near the Fairfax/Loudoun border. And now, a 2.3 million-square-foot data center park is planned for construction by Starwood Capital Group near 13832 Redskin Drive in the Oak Hill section of the Sully District.

So, in light of this proliferation of data centers, Hart has a few more questions about air pollution because of them as well as “the cumulative effect of data centers on the region, on air quality and health. What are the long-term effects on human health and the environment? And how many data centers are too many if we’re maxed out on air quality already?”