Dominion Skiffes Creek mitigation plan largely unchanged; still at $85 million

The latest revised draft of Dominion's mitigation proposal for its Surry-Skiffes Creek power line project keeps funding at the proposed level of $85 million, but officials with the Army Corps of Engineers said it offers more specifics, alleviating earlier concerns from the agency.

The plan was released Monday afternoon, after a several-months-long process where the Corps pushed the utility agency to give more details about how it would offset the adverse impacts of the project. Dominion has said it needs to build to ensure adequate power is available on its Peninsula grid.

The project will connect 500-kilovolt transmission lines from Dominion's Surry Power Station to a proposed switching station in Skiffes Creek, and would cost about $181 million, not including the $85 million for mitigation. The Corps is reviewing whether to give Dominion a federal permit for the project, and can either approve the request, deny it, or order a longer, more in depth environmental impact statement. The coalition of opposition groups will now have a 30-day period to weigh in and provide comment on the project.

The project is opposed by environmental and historic preservation groups, including the National Park Service, that argue the project will disrupt the viewshed along an historic section of the James River. They have argued that Dominion should submerge the power lines, or consider other options for supplying power to the Peninsula.

On Wednesday 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.

The project would include 17 in-water towers, some as high as 295 feet to allow passage of ships through the river.

The first draft mitigation proposal was released in December. In March, the Corps said it had sent a partial draft from Dominion back with more questions.

When reached by the Gazette on Monday, Tom Walker, Chief of the Regulatory Branch of the Norfolk District of the Corps, said he felt Dominion had satisfactorily answered questions posed by Corps officials, who stressed they still have not made a decision whether to approve the project.

"I think they have added some more detail on some of the projects sets," Walker said. Some of the mitigation projects include funding for heritage tourism, shoreline conservation and water quality projects near Hog's Island, Carter's Grove and Jamestown Island.

The new document outlines several steps Dominion will have to take before starting construction, to assure officials it will be able to take the mitigation steps it has outlined along areas affected by the project.

For example, before Dominion begins construction, the company will have to provide proof that has it has permission to make improvements at locations like Carter's Grove, the document says. It would also have to seek permission and show proof of authorization from the National Park Service for shoreline conservation near the Colonial National Historic Park.

The funds would be released over a 10-year period, with 50 percent of funding disbursed over the first 5 years.

Ann Loomis, a senior policy adviser for Dominion, said the new mitigation draft also features a commitment that Dominion will remove the infrastructure for the project and restore the landscape if it's no longer necessary after the mitigation agreement expires in 50 years. The lifetime of the project is estimated at about 50 years.

In addition, the utility giant said it would take another look at the possibility of submerging the power lines, if feasible, after the 50-year life span of the project. Environmental groups argue technology is available today that would allow Dominion to do that.

Williamson said the $85 million figure staying the same as in earlier drafts was not the issue she was concerned with.

"That implies that there is a dollar amount that would solve this problem," Williamson said.

"Funds for this project should be solving the technical problem of getting power to the Peninsula that's needed and preserving the historic area — not setting up funds to pay for the problems that the project causes."

"We will continue to consult and we continue to want to identify an alternative project," Williamson said. "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."

Without the project, Dominion says it will have to use rolling blackouts during peak usage periods on the Peninsula, after shuttering two coal-burning units at its Yorktown Power Station to comply with federal environmental rules.

Williamson said she believed the Corps should host a public hearing, if possible, to discuss the mitigation proposal, as it did in October when officials hosted a town-hall meeting at Lafayette High School on the project.

"Given the importance of the resources at stake, opportunities for meaningful public comment are important," Williamson said. "If the Corps is able to host a public meeting certainly that would be a best practice."

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

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