The Army Corps of Engineers has kicked off its court-ordered environmental impact statement on Dominion Energy’s Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line.
The Corps is essentially redoing, in a more rigorous manner, the environmental assessment it conducted prior to awarding Dominion a permit to construct a 17-tower transmission line across the James River from Surry County to James City County. The Corps will review the same list of more than 25 alternatives and potentially consider new ones as it studies environmental impacts in an analysis that will inform its reconsideration of its permit approval.
The Corps anticipates a draft of the environmental impact statement will be available for public review in November, and the goal is to complete the study in two years or less.
One thing that will help the process along is that there’s a fair amount of data regarding environmental impact and alternative solutions that has already been collected thanks to the environmental assessment. The difference this time around is the study will delve more deeply into the subject, Corps regulatory chief Tom Walker said.
“We completed an environmental assessment that gathered quite a bit of information … we don’t throw that information away,” Walker said. “We’re not necessarily starting from scratch with this assessment. We’re now taking a deeper look at these alternatives and a deeper look at the impacts.”
The Corps held a public meeting to discuss the new study Wednesday at the Doubletree by Hilton Williamsburg. At the open house meeting, dozens of people came and went, asking questions of Corps and Dominion officials and providing feedback on the upcoming study.
Representatives of preservation and conservation group that have come out against Dominion’s power line project, area residents and local officials all came out to weigh in.
Some critics of the transmission line seemed confident the study will yield an alternative to the transmission towers. The coalition of preservation and conservation groups arrayed against Dominion has charged the power line is a threat to the environmental and historical resources at that section of the James River.
“It will show alternatives that are feasible and less costly and less environmentally damaging than what we have in the river,” said Pam Goddard, senior program director, mid-Atlantic region for National Parks Conservation Association. “That’s what should have been done the first time around.”
Goddard said she expects the process will yield more specific data about costs and construction timelines for the alternatives.
“That’s what an EIS requires. It requires due diligence on a whole host of issues,” Goddard said, noting the study would cover visual effects, environmental effects and effects on historic sites.
There’s already a lot of data out there about the project, and through it all opponents of the transmission line have held there is another way, said Jamie Brunkow, James River Association lower James riverkeeper.
"There’s been quite extensive analysis already, and it’s been our opinion all along that there are viable alternatives,” he said.
The formal public comment period continues until Aug. 1, though Walker expects the period will be extended to about the end of August due to public feedback. Walker said the Corps expects to receive and consider public feedback throughout the preparation of the environmental impact statement.
The Corps finds itself in this position after a federal judge ruled in March that it was wrong to award the permit without fully considering the project’s effects, a move the judge found was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”
The National Environmental Policy Act requires a federal agency to conduct an environmental impact statement for proposed major construction projects unless the agency finds there will be no significant impact.
The judge ruled that arguably, there are significant impacts, and revoked the permit. The judge didn’t pitch any ideas regarding what to do with the transmission line, which had just been powered up days before. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied Dominion’s request for a rehearing May 31.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is expected to make a ruling on the permit’s status while the environmental impact statement is created by this fall at the earliest.
Dominion’s position is that the transmission line, which now has an estimated cost of $435 million, should remain in place during the study. Dominion officials have called the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line critical to service 600,000 people on the Peninsula.
During the environmental impact statement process, the Corps will review more than 25 alternatives. Among them are the existing overhead power line, underwater lines and demand-side management.
“This is the beginning of the EIS process. We’re not here defending any part position or alternative,” Walker said.
Dominion contends the Corps’ environmental assessment was more than adequate, but the company also wants to cooperate with the process.
“The Army Corps did an environmental assessment that was a four-year process which was very, very thorough. And we believe they rendered a quality decision after that,” Dominion director of transmission planning Steve Chafin said. “We were disappointed with the ruling of the court, but we will certainly comply with that and the Army Corps will carry out the EIS and we’ll cooperate with them every step of the way.”
Environmental impact study
For more information and to provide feedback, contact Randy Steffey by mail at Randy Steffey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District, 803 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510, by phone at 757-201-7579 or by email at email@example.com.
For more information, visit nao.usace.army.mil/Missions/Regulatory/SkiffesCreekPowerLine.aspx.
Jack Jacobs, firstname.lastname@example.org, 757-298-6007, @jajacobs_