New draft of mitigation plan for Surry-Skiffes Creek project released

joreyes@vagazette.com

A new draft of the mitigation plan for the proposed Surry-Skiffes Creek powerline project was released Wednesday, about a month and a half after the Army Corps of Engineers said it felt the project may be at an impasse.

The draft is the third version of a mitigation plan drafted by Dominion Power and released to the Corps for review. On Wednesday, the Corps sent the draft to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Those two groups have until Dec. 21 to provide the Corps with comments on the mitigation plan, also called a memorandum of agreement. All four groups must sign off on the mitigation plan for it to be approved and proceed to the next step of the permit process.

The main challenge facing the project is its proximity to historical sites, such as Jamestowne, and the project's effect on the view of the James River. In June, Sharee Williamson, a general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said no amount of mitigation would preserve the viewshed or blunt the impacts of the Surry-Skiffes Creek Project.

"This mitigation document is attempting to solve a problem that's causing harm to these historic resources, the only way this problem can truly be solved is for a different project to be considered and approved," Williamson told the Gazette in June.

The mitigation plan provides $85 million from Dominion to offset the impact of the Surry-Skiffes Creek project, which if approved, would build power lines across the James River from the Surry Power Station to a proposed switching station at Skiffes Creek. The lines would be held up by 17 towers, four of which will reach about 295 feet. The other 13 towers will be about 160 feet tall.

The project is estimated to cost $181 million, not including money for mitigation. The mitigation includes measures to restore and prevent shoreline erosion, preserve and enhance cultural landscapes and improve water quality, according to Dominion.

Without the lines, the Peninsula will be under-served and face a greater risk for blackouts, especially on days of extreme weather when the energy grid is most strained, said Kevin Curtis, vice president of technical solutions for Dominion. Planning experts estimated there could be between 50 and 80 outages per year, according to Dominion.

Reinforcing legalese

Tom Walker, the chief of the Corps' regulatory branch, Norfolk District, said the main difference with this version of the 65-page mitigation plan is new wording that better guarantees and solidifies measures promised by Dominion to offset the impact of the project, or as he put it, "the legalese." Walker said he doesn't think there was any ill-intent in the wording of the previous drafts; the Corps just wanted to shore-up any possible gaps in the plan.

Walker said these gaps were the main reason he felt the mitigation was at an impasse before. He now feels they've resolved those issues.

The mitigation plan requires Dominion to provide money to five agencies in Virginia to help them resolve any adverse effects of the project. Dominion will also work with the Virginia Land Conservation Fund on several other projects, possibly including the development of programs and exhibits focusing on the Peninsula campaign in the Revolutionary War.

Other mitigation projects involve preserving landscapes on the James River Watershed and enhancing the feel and setting of the Battle of Yorktown.

Curtis said the Peninsula's reliability issues with power are some of the most severe in Dominion's coverage area and will grow worse once Dominion closes its two Yorktown coal-burning power plants in April 2017 to comply with restrictions from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The two plants do not operate regularly or at full capacity, but are used to provide supplemental power to the Peninsula when necessary, Curtis said. In July and August, the plants were fired up on 20 days, according to Dominion's quarterly review of power use released in October. The closure of the coal-burning units will leave one oil-burning unit at Yorktown available when needed to insure reliability and that unit is only allowed to be used at 8 percent of its capacity, Curtis said.

Ann Loomis, director of federal affairs for Dominion, said the power company hopes to get the permit to build the lines as soon as possible — construction would take 18 to 20 months.

For the Surry-Skiffes Creek project to begin, Corps of Engineers Col. Jason E. Kelly must decide to issue the permit for the project. The mitigtion plan — if approved by the Corps, Dominion, Virginia Department of Historic Resources and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation — would go to Kelly for consideration before he makes his permitting decision. If a mitigation plan is not agreed upon, the Corps would pass the final memorandum of agreement to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The council would have 45 days to comment on the mitigation plan to Kelly, who then would make the final decision on the project permit.

Threats to history

Walker said the primary challenge with the project has been its impact on historical sites. "There aren't many projects at this scale with this historical impact," he said, adding that the environmental impact was pretty minimal.

The affected sites that are the focus of mitigation are the Colonial Parkway, Carter's Grove and Jamestown, Loomis said. She echoed Walker's feelings that this project was different than most.

"This is not a typical mitigation," she said. "A project of this many parties and in this location takes time."

Opponents to the project say the towers would mar the view of the James River and threaten wildlife and archaeological sites in the area.

"This proposal has become one of the most serious threats to our nationally significant historic resources," wrote National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis in a Dec. 11, 2015 letter to the Corps. "This nation has only one Jamestown."

Kym Hall, superintendent of the Colonial National Historical Park, said she's concerned the power lines would open the door for further industrial development if they're built. She didn't feel the mitigation package would really protect the historical sites and viewshed. "Not allowing that first crossing, that first industrial project, protects the area long-term," she said.

She also said any change to the viewshed is significant because it's a 400-year protected view, with the exception of development along the area's shoreline. "If those lines are built, kayakers on the Captain John Smith Trail would have to paddle under them," she said.

A spokesman for the Virginia Department of Historical Resources said officials needed more time to review the document before discussing it as of press time.

Dominion said it looked at alternatives to the lines crossing over the river, including running the lines underwater. But it found that its current plan was the only viable option, considering environmental and logistical factors.

Reyes can be reached by phone at 757-247-4692.

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