Corps asks Dominion for more information on second Surry-Skiffes Creek mitigation proposal

abogues@vagazette.com

Dominion Virginia Power has submitted a partial second draft of a mitigation proposal for its Surry-Skiffes Creek project, which would run 500-kilovolt transmission power lines across the James River.

While there are few details about the draft, a spokesman for the Norfolk District of the Army Corps of Engineers said it was sent back to Dominion after Corps officials felt it left questions unanswered.

The Corps will determine whether to grant Dominion a federal permit for the project, which would involve building 17 transmission towers, some as high as 300 feet, across a historic section of the river.

As part of the permit review process, Dominion has to submit a proposal to mitigate the impacts of the project.

"We had questions that were brought up with the first draft," said Patrick J. Bloodgood, a spokesman for the Corps. "We didn't feel that it answered them."

"We've already requested and suggested edits," Bloodgood said. Mark Haviland, another spokesman for the Norfolk Branch of the Corps, said he was not aware of the exact nature of the questions, but said they dealt largely with impacts that would come as a result of building the towers. "There needed to be more specificity for us," Haviland said.

The Corps can either approve the permit, deny it, or decide to conduct a more in depth Environmental Impact Statement.

The Virginia Gazette requested a copy of the most recent version of the draft submitted by Dominion, but Bloodgood declined saying it was a " deliberative working document" and therefore could be withheld from release under the federal Freedom of Information Act. He suggested the Gazette contact Dominion.

Officials for Dominion said the second draft is not complete.

"If there was a formal document ready to be released we'd do that," said David Botkins, a Dominion spokesman. He referred to the questions from the Army Corps and environmental groups as being "part of the collaboration process." "It's just part of the back and forth," Botkins said, in a phone interview Friday.

"At this point, we are continuing to analyze and see where we can accommodate the concerns expressed in writing during the comment period and in person at the Consulting Party meeting on Feb. 2," Bonita Billingsley Harris, a Dominion spokeswoman, said in an email to the Gazette.

"In the next 2 weeks or so, we will send our comments back to the Army Corps. When a second draft is completed, the Corps will do the same thing it did before, email it out to the consulting parties. That's when it will also be available for media," she said.

The project proposal has been met with fierce opposition from a coalition of environmental and historic preservation groups, which argue the towers would permanently mar the viewshed along the James and possibly damage yet-to-be found submerged historic artifacts.

The first mitigation proposal from Dominion outlined an $85 million plan for conservation projects along the stretch of the James from its Surry Power Station to Skiffes Creek in James City County.

The initial proposal funded items like water quality and sediment control along the James, as well as some heritage tourism, landscape preservation and money to help fight seawall erosion at Jamestown Island.

The mitigation pitch from Dominion didn't receive a warm welcome from the environmental groups, who are consultant parties on the permit review process being performed by the Corps. Some pegged the $85 million figure as extremely low.

It has also become a matter of doctrine to environmental groups that the project can't be mitigated, as they view the transmission lines as a permanent disfigurement of the area, which contains portions of the Capt. John Smith National Historic Water Trail.

At a consultant party meeting hosted by the Corps in February, opposition groups said there needed to be a bigger assessment of the impacts of the project.

"There are a number of questions that have not been answered and a number of studies that have not been done," said Pam Goddard, Chesapeake & Virginia Program Director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

The National Parks Conservation Association has been a leading opposition voice on the project. "What we need isa really comprehensive socioeconomic study that determines the effects on the tourism industry and on the national park itself if the project moves forward. There was a very limited one done by Dominion's consultants," Goddard said.

Goddard applauded the Corps for asking more questions on the second draft of the mitigation proposal. "I think the Corps is rightfully saying to Dominion that you have not done all the work that you need to do to show the impacts of this project," Goddard said.

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

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