The Army Corps of Engineers issued a final permit Thursday allowing Dominion Energy Virginia to build a high-voltage transmission line across the James River, from Surry County to Skiffes Creek in James City County.
Dominion has said it needs the line to ensure a reliable supply of electricity to the Peninsula and to make sure that transmission problems here don't spread more widely.
Historic preservation groups said the line, which would be carried across the river on 17 towers, some as high as 295 feet, would mar the site of the first English settlement in the United States.
The Corps permit was the second-to-last government approval Dominion needs to build the line.
The company is slated to ask James City County supervisors on July 11 to approve a permit to build a switching station to connect the line to the rest of its grid.
Opponents say Dominion could have opted for other ways to deliver power, including underwater lines, a connection down the Peninsula and conversion of two polluting coal plants at Yorktown to natural gas. They have also challenged Dominion's forecasts of power demand.
"We believe the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done a diligent and thorough review," Dominion spokeswoman Bonita Billingsley Harris said. "The permit from the Corps is a critical part of the project, and now allows us to begin construction on the line portion of the project in accordance with the provisions of (the environmental mitigation plan)."
The Corps had to approve the plan because the line crosses a navigable river and because it impacts wetlands. As part of its review, it looked at the effect of the line on historic sites, on endangered species and on wetlands. The Corps did not require Dominion to make any changes to the line's route.
The impact on the historical landscape of the James River around Jamestown sparked the strongest opposition. While the Corps and the historic preservation agencies of the state and federal government have accepted Dominion's plan to reduce the impact of the line, several historic preservation groups that had intervened in the Corps' review refused to accept the plan, saying the line simply should not be built. More than two dozen filed formal protests.
"The James River at Jamestown is one of the most historically significant landscapes in the United States, and it should be protected from industrial development," said Sharee Williamson, associate general counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
"If Dominion's project moves forward, visitors will be greeted by massive towers and flashing safety lights. This outcome is not in the public interest, particularly when alternatives exists that could meet the region's power needs and preserve this significant place," she said.
Pamela Goddard, Chesapeake and Virginia program director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said her group will join others in asking the James City County supervisors not to approve the switching station.
"I know there is concern about safety," she said, adding that there is a nursing home nearby and that she believes supervisors are concerned about the difficulty of evacuating people if an accident happened.
She said she was also concerned that the Virginia Marine Resources Commission decision to allow the project and to let Dominion work on two towers at a time would harm sturgeon and other threatened and endangered species.
"There are so many national parks affected, threatened and endangered species, and public protest. Any one should be enough to trigger an environmental impact statement, but they didn't in this case," she said. Such a statement requires an in-depth look when a project has a significant effect on the equality of a human environment.
The Corps approved the James River crossing after finding that the only other route it deemed feasible, down the length of the Peninsula, would affect more historic sites and wetlands than the river crossing. It required Dominion to undertake a $91 million plan to mitigate the environmental impact of the line, as well.
Dominion has said building the line will take 18 to 20 months. It can't actually start until several conditions in the $91 million mitigation plan are met, however.
The company had wanted to have the new line in place before it shut down its Yorktown 1 and 2 coal-fired generating units, which it did in April. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy issued an emergency order allowing the company to operate the plant, even though it violates federal standards for the emission of mercury and other toxic gases, during critical situations in the summer.
Dominion had warned that without the line, the Peninsula could face rolling blackouts on as many as 80 days a year. But earlier this year, when the company disclosed an emergency plan for cutting power, without notice, to 150,000 Peninsula customers if there are faults in two of the dozens of components on its high-voltage transmission network on the Peninsula, it said that kind of two-component fault has happened just twice in the past decade.
Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.