A new bill aims to change the process for constructing electric transmission lines near historic areas after the recent legal battle regarding Skiffes Creek.
Dominion Energy started the approval process in 2012 to construct a 500,000-volt power line across the James River. However, later that year concern for the project was raised when Colonial Williamsburg, the College of William & Mary and Preservation Virginia submitted a joint letter to the State Corporation Commission opposing the project, saying it would destroy the area’s historical and cultural heritage.
Preservation Virginia and another conservation group then filed lawsuits against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, claiming the Corps violated the National Environmental Policy and Clean Water Act when it issued a permit for the project.
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Despite those claims, Judge Royce Lamberth of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against the lawsuit and said the Corps had complied with both acts in May 2018 and the organization filed an appeal.
The lines were powered on in February 2019 and in November 2019, another federal judge ruled the lines could continue to operate during an environmental study.
“We’re so fortunate to live and work in Virginia with its rich history and beautiful scenery,” said Rayhan Daudani, spokesman for Dominion Energy, in an email. “Our transmission siting process takes into consideration the potential impacts to historic and scenic assets along the proposed routes, as well as the environmental impacts, to ensure we provide excellent reliability at a low rate in a manner that is respectful to the Commonwealth.”
State Del. Michael Mullin (D-93) has introduced a bill that would change how companies propose new projects and how the State Corporation Commission reviews them.
The 93rd district includes parts James City and York counties, part of Newport News and Williamsburg.
“Now, the entity requesting the permit only needs to show that they are reasonably minimizing adverse impacts,” said Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO for Preservation Virginia. “The new language says that there will first be an attempt to avoid those impacts and if it’s not possible then they will be minimized as much as possible.”
Kostelny said there is an important distinction in using the word “avoid” in the bill. While current proposed projects only have to minimize their impact, the goal of the bill is to prevent impacts altogether.
“What this really does is offer the SCC process an opportunity to find alternatives that don’t impact battlefields, indigenous cultural landscapes and other things that are important to our heritage,” she said.
The bill will not impact the current Skiffes Creek project but instead is more of a legacy of it. In the future, companies will have to go through the process of avoiding impacts on historic areas which ultimately will save money, Kostelny said.
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“This is [a] cost effective way because it means that early in the process these questions are being asked rather than waiting to address it at a federal level,” she said. “This should actually speed up those [federal] permit applicants because they’ve had this additional level of review at the state level.”
In addition, the bill will encompass a wider variety of historic resources. Kostelny said current language only refers to historic districts but the new language will consider impacts to historic resources. This means any location that is listed or eligible for listing on the state’s historic registry.
The bill has been referred to the House Labor and Commerce Committee on Thursday, according to Virginia’s Legislative Information System.
“We [at Preservation Virginia] think this is a bill that really benefits everybody,” she said. “Especially historic resources, but it should help to move projects forward in a more efficient manner.”
A representative from Mullin’s office did not immediately respond for comment.