Monday, December 11, 2023

Conservation group plans legal action to stop Skiffes Creek line construction, citing threats to wildlife

A simulated view of the Skiffes Creek project from the Kingsmill Resort area. (WYDaily/Courtesy Dominion Power)
A simulated view of the Skiffes Creek project from the Kingsmill Resort area. (WYDaily/Courtesy Dominion Power)

Editor’s note: The full intent to sue letter can be found in full at the bottom of this story.

A new legal notice from a national conservation group is alleging the Surry-Skiffes Creek Transmission Line will threaten endangered species — and the group is demanding Dominion Energy immediately halt construction of the project.

The National Parks Conservation Association filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service Monday, according to a conservation association news release.

The letter alleges the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Endangered Species Act in their review of Dominion Energy’s proposal to construct power lines across the James River.

The conservation association said both the Atlantic Sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon will be threatened by construction activities and the placement of the 17 transmission towers in their habitats.

The conservation association claims both the Army Corps of Engineers and the fisheries service overlooked the presence of sturgeon in the James River during their review of the project, and failed to analyze or mitigate the impacts of construction.

As as result, the conservation association’s letter said both agencies violated the Endangered Species Act by approving the Skiffes Creek project.

The letter says the agencies must begin another review of environmental impacts of the project and Dominion must immediately stop construction of the transmission lines until the review is complete.

“Dominion Energy’s transmission project poses an enormous threat to endangered sturgeon, their habitat and the surrounding national park landscape,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Endangered juvenile Atlantic Sturgeon and their critical habitat have been found at the very site where the transmission tower foundations are currently being constructed. Until proper review is completed, construction on the project must stop to prevent irreparable harm to these endangered fish populations and the historic setting of this treasured place.”

The notice of intent to sue said that juvenile Atlantic Sturgeon inhabit the site year-round and would be sensitive to many of the impacts of the projects, including electromagnetic radiation, buzzing from the high-voltage wires, night-time lighting on the towers and damage to the riverbed.

Dominion spokesperson Bonita Harris said the company supports the Army Corps’ recommendations, adding that for five years the impact of the project on wildlife was scrutinized. She said every other plan Dominion considered did not meet the needs of electric customers on the peninsula.

“We’ve done as much as we can to limit the impact to the environment and work around the sturgeon, but it’s a balancing act,” said Harris said. “Any further delay in the construction will put more of a risk on our ability to keep the lights on,” for peninsula customers.

Both the Army Corps of Engineers and the fisheries service declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Attempts to halt construction

The notice of intent to sue letter is the latest in a series of legal actions aimed to block the construction of Dominion’s Surry-Skiffes Creek Transmission Line. The National Parks Conservation Association — a Washington D.C.-based group that aims to protect and preserve national parks — also filed a lawsuit to halt the project in the summer of 2017.

The lawsuit, which alleges the transmission line would “deface” nearby historic sites such as Jamestown and the Colonial National Historical Park, is still awaiting judgment.

Construction of the deepwater portion of the Surry-Skiffes Creek Connector high-voltage transmission line project started in November, just weeks after a federal district court judge refused to grant a court order asking to stop the project.

The project includes the construction of 17 transmission towers as tall as 295 feet over the James River. The power lines will transmit electricity from Surry County to James City County.

Dominion Energy Virginia has previously said construction of the river crossing, as well as associated projects such as the switching station and additional electric-transmission structures will help prevent rolling blackouts on the Virginia Peninsula.

Environmental impacts

Under a memorandum of agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers, the project is required to mitigate hazards to the history of the river and the environment such as minimizing damage to local fisheries, Rusty Meadows, electric transmission project manager on the water crossing portion of the project, said in November.

For example, pile drivers used to lay the towers’ foundations can create sounds harmful to the endangered Atlantic Sturgeon, so the project was required to wait for the fish to migrate out of the area, Meadows said.

On May 15, Dominion released an update on the project, stating “construction is well underway,” although “tidal conditions” in the James River have caused construction techniques for the steel towers and their foundations in the river to change.

The construction of foundations in the river will not start until July 1 at the earliest. Construction on land is continuing as planned.

The update, released by Dominion Energy Media and Community Relations Manager Bonita Billingsley Harris, said the line is expected to be energized by summer 2019.

‘America’s Founding River’

Historic preservation and conservation groups from Williamsburg to Washington D.C. have voiced concern for the project’s impacts.

“This project from the very start has concerned us,” Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia, said in July. “We owe it to those who came before us and those who’ll come after to defend this river.”

Kostelny oversees the Jamestowne Rediscovery Foundation, a group directly opposed to the project.

The group is a consulting party on the project, Kostelny said. Throughout the process, the organization has lobbied for alternatives to the project as proposed by Dominion.

“We led an effort with 10 local, statewide, and national organizations to put forward alternatives that would deliver energy to the peninsula,” Kostelny said. “We’re not against that at all. We just know there are ways to accommodate that need in ways that would preserve what Congress called America’s Founding River.”

However, groups opposed to the project have been so far unable to halt the project’s construction.

WYDaily archives were used in this story.

This story has been updated with comment from Dominion.

60-Day Notice Letter National Parks Conservation Association by Sarah Fearing on Scribd

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