Dominion to start on James River crossing for Skiffes Creek power line

Dominion Energy says it will begin limited construction to bring a new high-voltage line across the James River from Surry County to Skiffes Creek, now that it has paid for some $90 million in mitigation work the Corps of Engineers required as a condition to approving the project.

The work will not include the 17 towers, some as high as 295 feet, that are to carry transmission line cables across the river. Dominion will work on the concrete foundations for the towers, and the fenders intended to keep boats away, spokeswoman Bonita Billingsley Harris said.

The project still faces a legal challenge in Washington from environmental and historic preservation groups, which charge that the Corps did not follow the law when approving the line.

Dominion has said the new 500-kilovolt line is necessary to provide reliable electricity service on the Peninsula and to ensure that faults on the system here do not spiral into blackouts that could affect the rest of the state.

Historic preservation groups say the line would desecrate views around the first permanent English settlement in North America.

When U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth last month rejected requests from National Parks Conservation Association, National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Association for the Preservation of the Virginia Antiquities that he order an immediate halt to work on the line, he ruled they would not suffer irreparable harm before the towers go up. Since the foundation would extend no more than 7 feet above the water, they would not harm the view, he noted.

Dominion told the court that work on the towers themselves would not start until at least April, and Lamberth said that should give the three nonprofit groups, the Corps of Engineers and Dominion ample time to submit briefs so that he can decide the merits of the case.

“We’re concentrating on the legal arguments now,” said Elizabeth Merritt, deputy general counsel for the National Trust.

Although opponents did not succeed in their bid for a court order immediately halting work, “the judge stated in his opinion ... that our arguments on the merit of the case itself were quite powerful and that if Dominion should begin construction of the metal towers before the case is heard, another (preliminary injunction) should be sought immediately,” said Margaret Fowler, co-founder of the Save the James Alliance.

The Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit in July for the line, which will cross 4 miles of the James River from just south of the Hog Island Wildlife Management Area in Surry County to the old BASF site in James City County.

The line is expected to cost $180 million and take 18 to 20 months to complete. Dominion hopes to finish construction by the second quarter of 2019 and to begin sending electricity through it that summer, Harris said.

As a condition to granting the permit, the Corps said Dominion had to undertake some $91 million of mitigation work first.

Dominion has deposited that money with The Conservation Fund, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, the Virginia Environmental Endowment, the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Harris said.

The Corps must approve actual mitigation work, however. So far, no mitigation projects have been completed, she said.

The work is to include efforts to protect shorelines, improve water quality and enhance landscapes and views around Jamestown, the Colonial Parkway and Carter's Grove in James City County, Surry County's Hog Island, the Fort Crafford earthworks at Mulberry Island on Fort Eustis, the Yorktown battlefield and the site of the Native American settlement at Werowocomoco in Gloucester County.

In addition, the agreement called on Dominion to donate $1.5 million to the Chickahominy Tribe of Virginia for historic preservation work, historic research and expansion of the Tribal Cultural Center, as well as $4.5 million to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe for expansion of its cultural center, setting up a Tribal Historic Preservation Office and expanding its shad hatchery.

Opponents argued that Dominion had other alternatives, including running the lines underwater or converting its Yorktown power plant's coal units to natural gas. They also disputed Dominion's forecasts for energy use.

Both the Corps and the State Corporation Commission held that the other options were either not technically feasible or would force customers' rates up unreasonably.

When Dominion first sought SCC approval for the line in 2012, it said it was needed to meet long-term electricity demand on the Peninsula. The utility said that need became more urgent when tougher new federal limits on the mercury and toxic gases power plants emit took effect, since they meant it had to close down its two coal-fired units at its Yorktown power station. State and federal regulators gave Dominion temporary permission to operate the plants through April, even though their emissions exceeded the federal standard. This summer the U.S. Department of Energy issued an emergency order allowing the plants to continue to operate if necessary to meet summer demand.

Harris said Dominion expects PJM Interconnection, which runs the electric grid in 13 Eastern and Midwestern states, to seek renewal of the emergency order until the Surry-Skiffes Creek line is complete.

Ress can be reached by telephone at 757-247-4535

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