Federal appeals court revokes federal permit for Dominion's Skiffes Creek power line project, orders environmental study

Staff Writer

The Army Corps of Engineers didn’t follow proper procedures when approving a permit to build the Surry Skiffes Creek power line, a federal appeals court ruled three days after the completed line was connected to Dominion Energy’s Virginia system.

In an opinion issued Friday, federal circuit court judge David S. Tatel called the decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to study the environmental impacts of the project “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”

He ordered the Corps to do a full environmental impact study of the project, as several environmental and historic preservation groups requested. He also revoked the Corps permit for construction of the $430 million project.

The decision reversed a lower court ruling, and prompted calls to tear down the towers from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Kingsmill resident who co-founded the citizens’ group that battled against the line.

The court order does not say anything about what to do with the completed towers and the transmission lines they carry.

When the Army Corps begins the study, it will also need to re-evaluate its analyses under the Clean Water Act and Preservation Act.

Dominion said in a statement Friday afternoon that it took all precautions during construction and will consider the court ruling before it plots a course of action.

“The Skiffes Creek Transmission project remains a valid and vital line serving the 600,000 residents who live and work on the Peninsula,” the statement said. “Putting this line into service earlier this week is the culmination of years of regulatory, environmental and community engagement. During the entirety of the construction process we worked to protect the environment in all of our operations.”

The project included the construction of 17 high-voltage transmission towers to carry power lines from Surry County to a switching station in James City County.

Work on the foundations of the towers began in early 2018; construction of the towers began in the summer of 2018 and finished in January.

Often a target of critics, the power lines cross a historic waterway and can be seen from the Colonial Parkway, Kingsmill and Jamestown Island.

Additionally, the court ruled that historic sites within the viewshed were legally impacted and therefore the project was subject to the federal Preservation Act.

“And had Congress wished to restrict (the law’s) reach to physical impacts, it could have easily done so by using the word “physically,” the ruling states. “In other words, even without blocking the view or dominating the landscape from all angles, the project undercuts the very purpose for which Congress designated these resources: to preserve their ‘unspoiled and evocative landscape(s).’”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Patrick Bloodgood confirmed the corps received the decision, but he said they would need time to evaluate the judges’ findings.

In joint statements issued by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Virginia, an organization directly affiliated with Jamestown Rediscovery, the leaders of both groups said the ruling will protect and preserve the important history of the James River.

“Our coalition maintained throughout the process that the James River’s iconic indigenous cultural landscape and the integrity of the views from Jamestown, the Colonial Parkway and Carter’s Grove could be preserved and electric power could be delivered to the Peninsula,” Preservation Virginia CEO Elizabeth Kostelny said Friday. “This ruling will protect the integrity of historic places in the future.”

Further, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has called for the removal of the towers.

“Preserving the James River and powering the surrounding region aren’t mutually exclusive,” National Trust for Historic Preservation CEO Paul Edmonson said Friday. “Had the Army Corps followed the law, a project alternative that delivers power and preserves this nationally significant landscape could have been identified. We remain committed to seeing these towers removed.”

For Margaret Fowler, a Kingsmill resident and a founding member of the Save the James Alliance, the win in the federal appeals court lacks any comparison.

"Words can hardly describe it, we're ecstatic,” she said. “We lost everything up to this battle and we won the most important battle. We won this one. There's no place to appeal to except to the Supreme Court. If we had to win a battle this was the one to win.”

While Fowler doesn’t live directly in the viewshed of the project, she began to fight the big-budget project about seven years ago as part of a long-term commitment to Historic Jamestowne and the Jamestown Settlement.

“It's been a profound influence on my retired life. I came to Williamsburg from a busy career,” Fowler said. “It's been one day at a time and we just followed the path.”

While Fowler said she’s not sure what the next steps are, she hopes Dominion turns-off the high-voltage power lines and takes down the towers.

“I'm hopeful they're going to turn the power off and begin the environmental impact statement process. We want the towers taken down.”

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at srobertsjr@vagazette.com and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

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