Conservationists Take to the James to Oppose Over-River Power Line

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James River Tour Captain John Smith Statue
The John Smith statue and the Jamestown Church are both visible from the James River on Sept. 21, 2015. (Kirsten Petersen/ WYDaily)

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Danny Schmidt, a senior staff archaeologist with Jamestown Rediscovery, said he remembers exploring College Creek with his brothers as a child and imagining he had “gone back in time” to when the creek was first discovered.

Now, the spot on the James River where English explorers first laid eyes on Jamestown Island in 1607 could be the site of transmission towers for the Surry-Skiffes Creek power line.

“My belief is that if the towers are built, if we as Virginians allow this to happen, we’ve sent a message to the rest of the country that we do not value our cultural and historic resources,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt’s sentiment is shared by archaeologists, conservationists and river activists who set sail Monday to show members of the press why they believe constructing a 500kV power line over the James River is not the answer to the area’s energy needs.

Dominion Virginia Power proposed building the power line to generate energy for the Peninsula after the Yorktown Power Station shuts down in 2016 due to federal environmental quality regulations.

“I’m not against power. I just feel there’s got to be an alternative,” Schmidt said. “This resource is too valuable to our state to sacrifice.”

Opponents of the transmission towers emphasized the potential disturbance of the historic viewshed — William Kelso, director of archaeology at Historic Jamestowne, called the proposed towers “visual pollution."

When it comes to ecological impacts, Lower James Riverkeeper Jamie Brunkow said the transmission towers would “undoubtedly” affect the Atlantic sturgeon, an endangered fish species found in the James River.

“These are fish that have been around for millions of years. They have remained a population in the James [River] all that time,” Brunkow said. “The thing that has challenged them the most is people.”

Brunkow said efforts to discourage the sturgeon from approaching the towers, such as reducing noise level, would only be a “drop in the bucket” toward protecting the species from subsequent impacts of the power line.

Bonita Billingsley Harris, Dominion’s media and community relations manager, said Dominion considered “dozens of alternatives” but the transmission towers were the only way to get the power line completed in a “timely manner.”

“It's our job to find the balance between respecting the many environmental and historic assets here and finding the best ways to deliver electricity. It's a hard job. We don't often get credit for it, but that's not why we're here,” Billingsley Harris wrote in an email to WYDaily. “We're here to get the job done for everyone who is depending on reliable electricity at their homes and businesses.”

Conservationists say they hope the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides to conduct an environmental impact study, which would reveal all of the environmental impacts of installing transmission towers. Margaret Nelson Fowler, trustee emerita of the Save the James Alliance, said this study could take a year to complete.

If the Corps of Engineers elects to do the study, a letter from the National Register of Historic Places, which declared the James River an eligible site for the registry in August, could help conservationists’ case, said Jeffrey Klee, architectural historian for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Klee said this eligibility raises the significance of the James River “from beyond a local body into something of national significance.”

“The question Dominion has forced us to ask is what kind of stewards we are,” Klee said. “What is the legacy we’re going to leave for the next generation?”

For Schmidt, he sees that next generation in his own sons, who he hopes can explore College Creek and the James River like he did.

“I want my boys to be able to have the same experience,” Schmidt said. “If Dominion comes through and builds these transmission lines … that experience would be marred forever.”