Representatives from state and national organizations, including the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, agreed that completing an environmental impact statement would be the best way to evaluate potential impacts of Dominion Virginia Power’s proposed power line over the James River, rather than moving forward with the information currently available.
This assertion was expressed Tuesday at Legacy Hall during a meeting of consulting parties organized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Army Corps will decide whether it should grant Dominion a permit to build its proposed project, which would include the Surry-Skiffes Creek 500 kilovolt (kV) line crossing the James River, the Skiffes Creek Switching Station and the Skiffes Creek-Whealton 230kV line.
Following federal regulations, the Army Corps is now in the process of determining if adverse effects of the project can be resolved, and is doing so by gathering information from consulting parties.
Opening the meeting, Col. Jason Kelly, the commander of the Army Corps Norfolk district, said he was seeking “specificity” regarding the project’s cumulative effects on historic and cultural resources and ways to mitigate them.
Ann Loomis, senior policy adviser for Dominion, said Dominion is aware of the project’s impact on the viewshed but said mitigation efforts should ultimately have a “positive cumulative effect,” one of which being less development in the project area as a whole due to conservation easements.
“There will be towers in the river. There will be a direct impact. You can’t put a sheet over them, you can’t make them disappear,” Loomis said. “When we’re here talking about mitigation, it’s, ‘How can you address and compensate and add to the conservation value of the area and address what can offset this impact?’”
Kym Hall, superintendent of Colonial National Historical Park, said experts who can offer a “tangible” value to the intangible “history, attachment and sense of place” evoked by the James River should be consulted.
“That viewshed is irreplaceable. There is no dollar figure, no project proposed of any kind that would reinstate the sense of place that comes with that view unobstructed,” Hall said. “For me, fundamentally, how can a Finding of No Significant Impact be signed when you have the destruction of that viewshed? An [Environmental Impact Statement] must be completed to address that issue.”
She added an EIS would ensure opportunities for longtime residents and people who work in the affected areas to speak to their experiences and the potential impact of the project.
Sharee Williamson, associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, agreed that an EIS is needed and said it is impossible at this time to meet or exceed the adverse impacts of the project because there is not enough information available, particularly simulated views of the power lines from historic sites.
“We are being asked to help consult regarding resolution of adverse effects but we have not been provided accurate visual simulations,” Williamson said, arguing transmission tower distance and height is not accurately portrayed on the available simulated views.
Representatives argued an EIS could address cumulative effects that Dominion may not be required to address at this stage, such as the effect on heritage tourism.
Elizabeth S. Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia, said the proposed project could deal a blow to tourism in the Historic Triangle if the viewshed is affected.
“If the experience isn’t as authentic, [visitors] may not be as likely to come back and may not be as likely to recommend [the destination] to their friends,” Kostelny said. “It could have an impact over a series of years, not just when the lines are constructed.”
The Army Corps could issue a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) or determine an EIS needs to be completed once it finishes an environmental assessment. Dominion officials maintain the opinion that an EIS is not needed and would not offer significantly new information.
Consulting parties also said the Memorandum of Agreement, which representatives received in December, does not adequately address all mitigation concerns. Scott Miller, vice president of electric transmission for Dominion Virginia Power, said the MOA is a draft and Dominion intends to revise the document after meeting with consulting parties.
Kelly said the feedback was “exactly what [he] was looking for” and said the goal from here is not to push concurrence but to ensure “compliance” with the process.
As to when the Army Corps could make a decision on the building permit, Kelly offered no timeline, but rather an approach – “diligence and adherence.”
“We are committed to remaining diligent to the assessment of information and adherent to the government process,” Kelly said. “It’s what we’re doing. Today’s session is pivotal to the process.”