Citizens Protest PW Green Business Council's Choice of Chair Wheeler as Keynote Speaker

Protesters highlight new threat of air pollution from data centers


It is not every day that environmentalists protest the meeting of other environmentalists, but that is what happened prior to the Prince William County Green Business Council’s Spring Conference, outside the Garden Hilton in Manassas, Tuesday morning. 

Citizen environmental activists protested the council’s choice of keynote speaker, Prince William Board of County Supervisor Chair Ann Wheeler-D, who is also the wife of John Wheeler, President of Keep Prince William Beautiful.

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Environmentalists generally oppose Wheeler for her advocacy of the Prince William Digital Gateway in the rural crescent next to the Manassas Battlefield. They are often joined by residents who want to keep data centers a safe distance from their homes and schools. 

Twenty people participated in the rally along the sidewalk next to the hotel parking lot, Tuesday. They held signs that read, “Green Not Greed,” "Wheeler is Not Green," and a large banner that said, "Corrupt Dealer Wheeler." Later, they held a media conference. 

There were both familiar and new faces among the group assembled.  Some supporters could not attend but instead sent emails to the council expressing their displeasure.

“While Council’s mission and goals are commendable, citizens object to the hypocritical presence of Chair Ann Wheeler at an event advocating for environmental responsibility. Chair Wheeler has an atrocious record of promoting reckless development that will be devastating to the natural and historical legacy of Prince William County,” said Heritage Hunt resident Bill Wright, one of the organizers of the protest. 

“Her participation in the conference represents nothing more than an attempt to greenwash her image for the purpose of political opportunism,” said Wright, who insinuated the council ignored her “abysmally poor environmental performance,” to appease Mr. Wheeler.

Other protesters - members of several environmental advocacy organizations including the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, Piedmont Environmental Council and Prince William HOA Roundtable-  also found it odd the council would invite the woman they often consider public enemy number one.

“I don’t have a problem with their mission, but it’s giving a platform to someone who doesn’t have a credible environmental record. Why not get someone from the open strip coal mine? It’s hypocrisy,” said Dr. Steve Pleickhardt, President of the Amberleigh Station HOA in Bristow. That community will be surrounded by data centers on three sides.

Prince William County is on track to become the new data center capital of the world. That arguably will greatly reduce the tax burden on residents, but citizens ask that supervisors tread more carefully in siting the data campuses and not to place 90 next to a national park. Especially since last week the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ] passed an allowance for data centers in Loudoun and Fairfax to run their diesel generators as a preventative measure.

Prince William was originally included in that variance and citizens worry with an overburdened electrical grid diesel exhaust could be another unintended consequence of hastily bringing the data center industry to their county.

The Digital Gateway was added to the comp plan before the variance was proposed. 

Prince William Green Business Council

But inside the hotel, Rico Fleshman, Chair of Prince William Green Business Council and Executive Direction of Keep Prince William Beautiful appeared unflustered. He said the council would not be directly responding to the protesters, nor weighing in on whether they approve of the digital gateway. “We’re not a political organization,” he said.

Fleshman explained the council is composed of 40 registered existing businesses that pool their efforts to reach the county’s environmental goals. They share immediate goals such as increasing recycling, cleaning up litter, and beautifying the county’s outdoor spaces. They also have sustainability goals such as improving water and air quality.

Business leaders can act towards sustainability within their companies and their company culture. They can also encourage their employees to volunteer in community clean-up around rivers, streams and the like. He explained it is really a community-business partnership with a “solid focus.” “They don’t just throw money at us,” he said.

Fleshman said they invited Ms. Wheeler because she is the county chair and because, as such, “she sets the tone for the county.”

“None of those folks [protesting outside] approached us,” said Fleshman. “We do the actual work. We’re not political.”

When Chair Wheeler walked in, she did not seem stirred. “Hopefully they are here supporting the Green Business Council,” she said. 

Mr. Wheeler was already inside the conference room. 

But protesters thought green-minded business leaders ought to be concerned about the digital gateway and proliferation of data centers outside industrial-zoned areas.

The digital gateway project alone would house approximately 90 data centers adjacent to the Manassas National Battlefield Park. It is predicted to bring a great deal of noise, light, and now possibly air pollution, while decimating open space and burdening the electrical grid.

While one year ago, many of them would not have considered themselves environmental activists, the data center issue has awakened them to the cause.

Furthermore, Wright noted that approximately 100 environmental and regional groups have opposed the Prince William Digital Gateway, including the kinds of organizations that not only advocate for the environment but whose members literally get their hands dirty. 

These diverse organizations include the American Battlefield Trust, the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, Chesapeake Conservancy, Coalition for Smarter Growth, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, Coalition to Save Historic Thoroughfare, Manassas Battlefield Trust, National Parks Conservation Association, Piedmont Environmental Council, Potomac Riverkeepers, Preservation Virginia, Scenic Virginia, and Wetland Watch. 

Mounting Reasons to Propose Data Centers

Protesters used the conference to bring attention to the state variance to allow data centers to run their diesel generators, therefore allowing toxic gases and soot that could negatively air quality and the health of people and animals.

On March 17 the DEQ approved the variance to apply to Loudoun and Fairfax Counties. At the public hearing, residents of Prince William County said their data centers are being built, in some cases as close as 50 feet from backyards, school yards, parks and commercial businesses.  

Protesters brought signs saying trees are the “lungs” of the planet and further serve to purify the air.

Individuals had different reasons for joining the effort against the proliferation of data centers. It is no longer only people who advocate for the rural crescent or who will be able to see the data centers from their kitchen windows.

“I’m an environmental advocate for Prince William County, Manassas, Loudoun and Fairfax,” said Illana Naylor. "One data center is an economic boon. Three hundred is a disaster. It’s destroying our trees which are the Earth’s lungs.”

Naylor is a nurse who lives in the City of Manassas. She did her master’s dissertation on The Health Effects of Global Warming in 2003, or what now would more accurately describe as “climate change.”

She has followed data centers because of her interest in environmental issues and involvement in other environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. Once she learned that data centers may need to run on diesel generators, she joined the fight. “It’s a healthcare nightmare and asthma has been on the rise.”

Naylor is very concerned that the International Panel on Climate Control says the pace of destruction is accelerating.  

“The destruction is massive. We are contributing to that without regard for our future well-being.”

Wendy C. Aulti, M.D. is a recently retired pediatrician who is also concerned about the environment. “No way taking three steps backward for the climate is a good idea for our children and grandchildren or our county.”

Aulti said they should not proceed without environmental studies. “The idea of build it and see what happens is lopsided.”  

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