Skiffes Creek power line ruling creates complications for western VA legislator

Dave Ress
Contact Reporterdress@dailypress.com

— A court ruling related to a proposed high-voltage transmission line across the James River caused extra work for a western Virginia legislator working on bill about an unrelated issue.

A Virginia Supreme Court ruling that Dominion Virginia Power had to take an extra step in its efforts to run lines across the James River to James City County led Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, to reassure colleagues that his bill about power lines wasn't a back door way of fast-tracking Dominion's project.

A flood of emails opposing what Habeeb thought was a highly technical bill affecting only western Virginia prompted him to tell the House Commerce and Labor Committee that his measure had nothing to do with James City County or the 500 kilovolt line Dominion wants to install between Skiffes Creek and Surry County.

"We must have had 400 emails, all the same," Habeeb said afterward.

Habeeb introduced his bill, which only affects smaller 138 kilovolt lines, in response to the Supreme Court's 2015 ruling that Dominion needed James City County's approval for the site of a substation at the end of the proposed Surry-Skiffes Creek line.

Dominion had thought that site approval was covered by the State Corporation Commission's approval of the Surry-Skiffes Creek line.

But the Supreme Court pointed out that language in state utilities law only speaks of lines, not equipment or substations associated with the wires, as had been assumed by the commission, utility companies and the General Assembly itself when it passed a bill in 2012 governing approval of 138 kilovolt lines.

Dominion spokesman David Botkins said the company has no plans to push to change the law governing higher voltage transmission projects, like Skiffes Creek, in order to rule out the local approval of substation sites that the Supreme Court decision requires.

And, as Habeeb said: "If you think you got a lot of email on this, just think of what you'd get if you wanted to do this for 500 kilovolt lines."

That law governing 138 kilovolt lines gave utilities the option of going to the commission or to county boards of supervisors for approval of new 138 kilovolt lines, and was meant to speed the process of connecting new economic development projects to the western Virginia grid, Habeeb said.

His bill added language to say it applies to lines and associated substations.

"That's what we thought we were doing in 2012," he said. "This has nothing to do with James City or 500 kv lines."

Dominion lobbyist Jack Rust made the same point.

"We have hardly any 138 kv lines," he said.

What it does affect is projects like two that are now underway, one in Henry County and the other in Carroll County, where the county supervisors approved the project rather than the SCC, said Ron Jefferson, a lobbyist for Appalachian Power, which serves western Virginia.

The committee recommended the bill, though Habeeb said later that several members told him before he made his explanation that they were inclined to vote against it, unsettled by the flood of email.

Despite the emails, nobody came to speak against the measure.

"I guess that shows what mass emails do," Habeeb said.

Dominion and James City County supervisors have put the issue of the substation site on ice, as they wait for word on whether the Army Corps of Engineers will approve the project.

Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.

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