Army Corps to host sit-down between Dominion and opposition groups on Surry-Skiffes Creek project

abogues@vagazette.com

The Army Corps of Engineers will again host a consultant party meeting with Dominion Virginia Power and environmental and historic preservation groups on Feb. 2, in the wake of clamor for more discussion on the controversial Surry-Skiffes Creek power line project.

The last time the Corps hosted a consultant party meeting in October, Col. Jason Kelly, commander of the Norfolk District of the Corps, said he was disappointed with the level of discussion on potential mitigation.

But Kelly also said in a December interview with the Gazette he did not plan to host another meeting between the parties.

Mark Haviland, a spokesman for the Corps, said Kelly reconsidered after staff members in the office's regulatory department said another consultant party meeting might be the best avenue to "determine if there's any room for movement in either direction."

"It's a whole lot easier to get Dominion and the consulting parties in the same room to discuss the comments (on mitigation)," Haviland said.

"Col. Kelly is committed to reaching a quality decision on this permit application and it's our hope that holding this meeting will promote more direct and active dialogue regarding the specifics of Dominion's mitigation proposal," he said.

Haviland stressed that if opposing parties give feedback on potential mitigation, it does not mean the Corps will automatically approve the permit.

Dominion is applying for a federal permit to build 500-kilovolt transmission lines from its Surry Power station to a proposed switching station in James City County. The permit review process is being conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers. The agency can either approve the permit for the transmission lines, deny it or recommend a more in depth Environmental Impact Statement.

Mitigation stalemate

Dominion and several opposition groups have been in a stalemate over the mitigation process, with environmental and preservation groups arguing the project cannot be mitigated and that more of the projects impacts need to be assessed.

The project is expected to cost $181 million to complete, according to Dominion, and the utility giant has pitched an $85 million mitigation proposal to reduce the environmental impacts of the project.

When asked if Dominion hopes the February meeting will be more productive, spokeswoman Bonita Billingsley Harris said "Yes, but we respect the process."

"Every voice counts. We are optimistic the consultant parties will come prepared to provide some valuable input on mitigation that will help the Corps so we can move forward with this critical project to ensure reliable electricity on the Peninsula."

In the meantime, behind the scenes work has continued in the permit process and application for land use rezoning in James City County.

The Board of Supervisors once again voted to defer hearing Dominion's rezoning request for the switching station, this time until March.

Impact of project

Opposition groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Parks Service have argued the transmission towers would irreplaceably mar the historic viewshed along the James River and disturb potentially sensitive environmental sites.

Dominion has said without the towers, it may have to use rolling blackouts to keep the power supply stable on its Peninsula grid. That assertion has been challenged by the National Parks Conservation Association, a non-profit group which has hired an energy consultant, Princeton Energy Resources, to explore whether Dominion's claims over power supply are correct.

The Army Corps of Engineers has determined the threat of rolling blackouts and power constraints outlined by Dominion are credible, Col. Kelly told the Gazette in December.

On Jan. 8 NPCA met with Dominion and Princeton Energy to discuss their issues with Dominion's analysis of demand for power.

"It was a pretty lively discussion for a couple of hours. We appreciate the Army Corps setting the meeting up and providing space, they're asking good questions," said Joy M. Oakes, with the National Parks Conservation Association.

"There was nothing really conclusive out of the meeting, you can do a bunch of letters back and forth, but there's nothing like sitting down and talking in-person. We were there to raise questions about the fact that peak demand is dropping in the region and how that's affecting things and about the potential for other strategies to meet actual needs," Oakes said.

Bogues can be reached by phone at 757-345-2346.

 Want to attend?

The next consultant party meeting will take place on Feb. 2 at Legacy Hall in James City County and will begin between 9:30 a.m. and 10 a.m.  A Corps spokesman said there is no opportunity for public comment at the meeting.

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