As you drive west from Washington DC, an imposing cluster of rectangular buildings emerges from the countryside. They emit a whirring sound, and could be confused for warehouses.
But, in fact, this is the home of the cloud internet.
These are data centers, where companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft store and distribute information. Prince William county, 40 miles (65km) from the US capital, is set to become the world’s capital of cloud storage if an ambitious but controversial project goes through.
“It’s a flash flood,” said Blaine Pearsall, who serves on the county’s historical commission.
On a gloomy morning earlier this year, Pearsall unloaded stacks of yellow manila folders from his red SUV. As he laid them out on the hood of the car, large maps stuck out from the pile of permits, zoning records and historical documents.
He traced the topography of Prince William county on a map, pointing to ridges and river valleys that make up his home. Pearsall noted the Manassas National Battlefield Park, where two key engagements of the US civil war took place, as well as historic sites that preserve the country’s history of slavery and emancipation, such as the remains of one of the only schools accessible to Black students in this area in the late 19th century. But he believes this familiar landscape is on the verge of becoming unrecognizable.
Between 2017 and 2021, roughly 94 American football fields worth of data centers were built in this area, and more are on their way. In late 2021 two developers put a proposal before the county board for a hub of data centers that would cover 27m sq ft, known as the “Digital Gateway”.
“Instead of diverting this flood away from history, American heritage spots, schools and neighborhoods – we’re getting mowed over,” said Pearsall.
Some locals, especially those who sold their land to the data center developers, welcome the proposal, saying it could bring jobs and boost the county’s economy. It could bring in an estimated $470m in annual tax revenue.
Others are staunchly against it, saying the hub would come too close to the Manassas battlefield and threaten areas where some believe there are unmarked graves from the civil war era. Two developers, Compass and QTS, plan to build close to the battlefield park itself.
The park service notes the likelihood that civil war activity occurred in the land adjacent to the park, and says it is possible that soldiers are buried there. The county’s historical commission and park officials argue that this land, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, should not be developed, citing harms including noise from the data centers, landscape leveling and the risk to the park’s viewshed of buildings of up to 100ft tall.
“This place was designated literally to protect this land from things like that forever,” said Kyle Groetzinger of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Developers say they will take precautions to protect historical sites, and are operating in the area at the suggestion of the county, which in 2021 released a comprehensive plan that called for the development of data centers.
“We’re implementing the vision of the county and feel like it’s a good location to do so. And really the benefits – there are tremendous benefits,” said a representative from Compass, noting the tax revenue that the county stands to gain.
The spokesperson said there could be 10 to 20 jobs for each data center building. While it’s not clear how many data centers Compass would build, the representative shared an estimate of 12 to 16 buildings.
A report commissioned by Compass found 10 sites of historical significance within the area where it is projected to build, including three cemeteries, a school and a home. The company is planning to preserve these sites, while it will further study the remaining five.
A report commissioned by QTS, the second Digital Gateway developer, and obtained by the Guardian says that part of the data center project could have an “adverse effect” on the Manassas battlefield. This is in part because “construction of the project would alter preserved landscapes that allow historically consistent vistas from the main battlefield”.
In a statement, QTS said it “has created thoughtful initiatives to ensure the data centers are incorporated seamlessly into the existing area”. It said it was “also working to enhance the community” by creating trails, donating land to parks and installing historical markers.
‘History is losing out’
Bordering the battlefield park, there is a road called Pageland Lane, where there are historic African American settlements dating back to the post-civil war era. A vast agricultural area, this land was part of “forsaken areas allotted to ex-slaves who first rented, then bought” this land to build their homes and communities, according to archival maps.
This area was also home to Jennie Dean, a formerly enslaved person and prominent member of the community. After emancipation, she founded several churches and the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth, which for more than four decades was the only institution of secondary education available to African American young adults.
Both QTS and Compass filed applications last year to change the land use designation for Pageland Lane from “agricultural” or “environmental resource”, which only allows for one house for every 10 acres (4 hectares), to “technology/flex”. If the rezoning amendments go through, a tech corridor could be developed in the area of the former settlements.
“History is there,” said Frank Washington of the Coalition to Preserve Historic Thoroughfare, a community established by formerly enslaved people and Native Americans. “It’s in writing, it’s within the county itself,” he added, noting the presence of a once flourishing community that established churches, schools and cemeteries. “However, when it comes to history facing power and greed, history is losing out. And that’s what’s happened historically to people of color – their history is either ignored, or completely wiped out. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Born and raised in Thoroughfare, Washington has been leading the fight to preserve what is known as Scott cemetery, which county records state has approximately 75 to 100 interred remains. In July 2020, the land the cemetery is on was acquired by a local brewery. A year after its purchase, the brewery commissioned an archaeological survey that did not find evidence of graves.
The proposed gateway would encircle the site of Thornton school, which was founded some time before 1889 to educate African American children. Nothing remains of the school today save a cluster of cedar trees. The land where the school once stood was acquired by Compass, and in its proposal, the company said it will preserve the site and won’t develop in that area.
Such assurances are not enough for locals like Washington.
“I don’t see how these historic sites will be protected if the data centers are built here,” he said.
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