Dominion and Corps may be at an impasse over Surry-Skiffes Creek

After more than three years of back and forth, the Army Corps of Engineers said the mitigation process with Dominion Power over the Surry-Skiffes Creek powerline project is nearing completion, but it may not conclude with the outcome Dominion hopes for.

Tom Walker, the chief of the Corps' regulatory branch, Norfolk District, said the Corps and the power company may be at an impasse as they try to hammer out the final details of an $85 million mitigation plan to offset the impact of installing power lines across the James River in Jamestown.

Dominion says without the lines, the Peninsula could experience rolling black outs starting next year.

Corps spokesman Patrick Bloodgood said the Corps has three options on mitigation: Execute a memorandum of agreement, request an environmental impact study or terminate the process.

Walker said he has a feeling this negotiation could be headed toward termination.

"It's definitely a possibility we may go through the termination route. We do these things fairly often. ... Usually we kind of get a good sense that everybody is on board and it will be OK. We don't necessarily have that with this one," Walker said.

Regardless of whether Dominion and the Corps agree on or terminate the mitigation plan, the permitting decision is in the hands of Corps of Engineers Col. Jason E. Kelly.

The Army Corps of Engineers is the permitting body ultimately responsible for green-lighting the project, which would connect Dominion's Surry Power Station to a proposed switching station in Skiffes Creek.

The project would include 17 towers in the water, some as high as 295 feet. 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."

Walker said if the mitigation process was terminated, the Corps would pass along the final memorandum of agreement to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The council would have 45 days to comment on the mitigation draft, and that information would be passed along to Kelly, who would roll the feedback into his decision on whether the project proceeds.

But even if the mitigation process were terminated, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation's comments could indicate the project should receive a green light.

"We don't know what those comments are going to be. It could be clear indication this is not acceptable, or it could be we couldn't get through mitigation process, but if Dominion just did x, y or z, we could be OK," Walker said.

Dominion spokeswoman Bonita Billingsley Harris said the council's objections may be the reason for the potential termination.

"I think the main sticking point has been hearing from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation," Billingsley Harris said. "We've gone back and forth with the Corps several times, and as far as I know we've answered their questions."

Walker said the goal of the $85 million mitigation is to offset whatever negative impact the power lines have.

"The idea is that it all balances out. As an example, (Dominion) could go in and fully restore the gardens on the back of Carters Grove," Walker said. "There may be towers in the view, but at the same time you (would) have much nicer grounds, so the overall experience hasn't changed that much."

Billingsley Harris said Dominion's mitigation efforts would aim to improve the area's environment and historic elements.

"The transmission line we plan to build will not be seen from Jamestown and not be seen from Colonial Williamsburg," she said. "It protects our historic trerasures while preventing blackouts on the Peninsula and expands the use of cleaner energy."

Colonial National Historic Superintendent Park Kym Hall said the loss of the historic view is not something that can be offset by other improvements.

"An irreplaceable resource doesn't have a mitigation package that is acceptable," Hall said. "(Putting the lines) underwater or some other route is the only acceptable outcome for us."

Hall said the park was anxiously waiting for the Corps' decision.

"We keep getting the vibe that there will be some sort of decision by the corps soon … but I don't know what that decision will be," she said.

McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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