Dominion Energy gets approval to build power line across James River

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A switching station to connect Dominion Energy's controversial high voltage transmission line across the James River to the utility's Peninsula electric system will come to property the energy giant owns near Skiffes Creek in James City county

The decision to approve came after five hours of debate before the James City County Board of Supervisors Tuesday night.

The James City County Board of Supervisors approval granted the last permit Dominion needed to go ahead with the $180 million line across the James River. The vote was 3-2, with Chairman Kevin Onizuk and Supervisors Michael Hipple and Sue Sadler voting for and Supervisors John McGlennon and Ruth Larson voting against.

Under state laws governing utilities and land use, the supervisors were not allowed to consider whether the high-voltage line itself ought to cross the river but had to focus exclusively on the switching station.

Dominion says it needs the line — which actually comprises nine cables — to ensure that the Peninsula has a reliable supply of electricity and to keep equipment failures here from triggering widespread blackouts that could extend far beyond the area.

Historic preservation groups have strongly opposed the company's plan, saying it would mar the historical landscape seen by the first English settlers in what is now the United States.

Opponents focused on the impact of the station on the Grove area.

"This is a danger to the health and public safety for the residents, especially the children," said resident Kathleen Rothschild. She noted that the station was near James River Elementary School, as well as a natural gas pipeline and a Newport News Waterworks reservoir.

Save the James Alliance co-founder Margaret Fowler said approving the station would create "an industrial wasteland" that would frustrate the county's hopes to enhance the Grove community.

"It is currently quiet and peaceful on that site, and you should keep it that way," she said.

A total of 15 people spoke against the station and 13 for it.

Roughly 100 people sported "reliable energy" stickers supplied by Dominion to show support for the station, which former Economic Development Authority member George Hudgins called "a vital link for an urgently needed source of power. ... Think about what would happen if the power went out on a 103-degree afternoon."

Craig Quigley, executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, said the switching station was necessary to reduce the risk of base closings, while Newport News Shipbuilding representative Tom Cosgrove said the shipyard was concerned that finding a new site for the station could mean delays in completing the James River transmission line.

Dominion asked the board to rezone 67 acres along Pocahontas Trail that the utility has owned since the 1970s and to issue a special-use permit allowing it to build the $59 million station. The station would use 16 acres of the land. Taxes on the facility have been estimated at $425,000 a year.

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Supervisor Michael Hipple said citizens' top concern is safety but said he was reassured by visits to other Dominion substations and its emergency management center.

"We're being asked to make a land-use decision about what's best for our county and our citizens ... and yet we're being pulled into an argument about this is the only opportunity to deal with a much broader policy issue," said Supervisor John McGlennon.

"This is an area where there is just too much opportunity for bad things to happen," he said.

"I've got to trust what (Dominion officials) say ... we're close to losing power," said supervisor Michael Hipple. "This land use decision isn't going to stop the line ... all it is going to do is keep (the switching station) in James City County or move it down the road."

Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a final permit 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's cables will run on 17 towers, some as tall as 295 feet.

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.

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 up customers' rates unreasonably.

The Corps required Dominion to undertake a $91 million plan to mitigate the environmental impact of the line and to win findings from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the state Department of Water Quality that the line would not harm water quality or affect fish and shellfish. The Corps' approval was required because the line crosses a navigable waterway and wetlands. In addition to considering whether there were alternatives, the Corps considered the line's impact on historic sites and endangered species.

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

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