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Dominion Virginia Power will consider submerging power lines in the James River, but only after its proposed overhead line project reaches the end of its 50-year lifespan, according to a draft memorandum of agreement.
The memorandum is a revision of a draft sent from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Dominion and 16 consulting parties, including Colonial National Historical Park, Save the James Alliance and the National Parks Conservation Association. The document addresses how Dominion will mitigate the project’s effects on cultural properties and the environment.
Dominion’s transmission line project includes the proposed Surry-Skiffes Creek 500 kilovolt (kV) line, which would cross the James River; the Skiffes Creek Switching Station and the Skiffes Creek-Whealton 230kV line.
The project would bring power to the Peninsula after the April 2017 closure of two coal-burning plants at the Yorktown Power Station.
To avoid negative cumulative effects in the future, Dominion is committing to revisiting the project every ten years after construction is completed to determine if the transmission lines are still needed, according to the draft.
If at any time during the 50-year lifespan it is found that the power lines are no longer needed, Dominion will remove the lines and land-based infrastructure and return the area to its pre-project condition.
However, alternatives like submerging the lines will not be evaluated until the end of the project’s lifespan, said Bonita Billingsley Harris, Dominion’s media and community relations manager.
“In fifty years if it’s still needed, we can see the feasibility at that time,” Harris said, noting the memorandum is still a draft and could change. “Once we get permitting and commit to the project, it would be a disservice to our customers to tear it down and replace it before it reaches the end of its productive lifespan.”
Opponents of the project like Sharee Williamson, associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, argue the technology is available now to submerge the transmission lines and there is no reason to wait 50 years to pursue that option.
“Dominion should take this project back to the drawing board and find either an alternative route or take the power lines under the river today, not 50 years from today,” Williamson said. “Dominion has vast resources at their disposal and they should welcome this opportunity to protect the James River and provide power to the Peninsula.”
Dominion is also pledging $85 million toward mitigating environmental impacts on the Jamestown Island-Hog Island-Captain John Smith Trail Historic District, enhancing natural and cultural resources at the Hog Island Wildlife Management Area, improving water quality and conserving battlefield land at Yorktown and Fort Crafford.
“Preservation of the historic area is very important to us too,” Harris said. “We love the area and we’re committed to preserving the area and protecting it however we can.”
Williamson said no amount of money can make up for disrupting the same view John Smith would have seen from Jamestown Island.
“The James River is a national treasure. It’s a significant part of our history and it’s priceless,” Williamson said. “The money included in that mitigation agreement will not solve the problem of destroying that viewshed.”
Additionally, Dominion has agreed to devising a treatment plan for archaeological resources found at the project site; completing a survey of underwater and terrestrial archaeological sites, documenting the unobstructed viewshed before construction; and examining options for coating and finishing materials that could minimize the visibility of the transmission line infrastructure.
Elizabeth S. Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia, said her organization is still reviewing the memorandum and is preparing a formal response. She said the Army Corps has not answered many questions from the consulting parties and she hopes the Army Corps will address their concerns now that the revised draft has been released
“Our position remains that we think there is a lot of data that questions the need for this particular project and we’re hoping that will be considered along with this mitigation strategy,” Kostelny said.
She referenced studies commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Association, including one that concluded Dominion is overstating the urgency of the project with outdated demand projections.
The consulting parties have until close of business July 13 to submit comments on the memorandum to the Army Corps.
In December the State Corporation Commission granted Dominion an extension to complete the project. It must now be online 20 months after Dominion receives a building permit from the Army Corps.
The draft, included in full here, was provided to consulting parties for their review and comments to assist the Army Corps in the decision-making process, said Army Corps spokesman Patrick Bloodgood.