Construction trucks on Pocahontas Trail and crane rigging ships are set to become a frequent sight in James City County as construction on the Skiffes Creek power project is ramping up.
Construction of the deepwater portion of the Surry-Skiffes Creek Connector high-voltage transmission line project will start Thursday, just weeks after a Federal District Court judge refused to grant a court order to halt the project.
After the judge’s refusal to grant the court order, the preparation work for the power line project accelerated, but there will not be any towers over the James River in immediate future.
“It’s not something that happens overnight… but things don’t happen that quickly,” said Rusty Meadows, electric transmission project manager on the water crossing portion of the project. “There’s a lot of planning and work that goes into it.”
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.
Each of the transmission towers in the water crossing will require a foundation called a pile. Five of the 17 piles will be in the deep waters of the James River — at depths greater than 20 feet. The remaining 12 piles will be in the shallower waters of the river, according to Meadows.
Work begins Thursday on the five deepwater piles in the crossing. Crane rigging ships have moved into position on the water and are prepared to lay the initial foundations for the towers, Meadows said.
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, according to Meadows.
For example, the pile drivers used to lay the towers’ foundations can create sounds harmful to the endangered Atlantic Sturgeon, so the project had to wait for the fish to migrate out of the area, Meadows said.
On the other side of Pocahontas Trail at the switching station site, project manager Doug Keesee has instituted measures to minimize the environmental impact of the project.
Keesee had workers install fences to reduce potential runoff to the surrounding area, and construction vehicles exiting the site are washed with recycled water to reduce dust pollution. The washes also keep area roads cleaner, he said.
The other side
Regardless of Dominion’s attempts to minimize historical and environmental damage, the power project has drawn the ire of conservation and historic preservation groups from Williamsburg to Washington D.C.
“This project from the very start has concerned us,” said Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia. “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.
In October, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia refused to put a stop to the project. This came after conservation groups’ first attempt to halt the project across the James River failed when a judge denied a preliminary injunction, according to documents filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
Lamberth refused to grant the court order, stating the National Parks Conservation Association could not immediately prove that its interests would be “irreparably harmed” without an action of the court, according to U.S. District Court records.
After the judge refused to grant the court order, Dominion’s construction teams began the preparations for the towers’ foundations.
Beyond the power lines crossing the river, there are an additional 20 towers that will be necessary to transmit the electricity to a yet-to-be-built Dominion switching station, according to Timothy Winsky, an electric transmission communications consultant for Dominion Energy Virginia.
That switching station is set for construction as soon as the end of January, according to Keesee.
The project will involve the rebuilding of 171 structures such as powerline towers, and the relocation of several other power lines to “accommodate the switching station,” Winsky wrote in an email.
So far, 59 of the 171 structures have been built, according to Winsky. He said the switching station and associated project should be complete by the spring of 2019.
The project, according to the company, is of vital importance. As it has said in the past, a lack of construction of the powerlines could lead to decreased consumer reliability of the peninsula’s electrical transmission system.
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.
While the project has been under government consideration since its initial review by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2013, the project still faces hurdles.
The federal court case still isn’t settled and may not be for several months. Parts of the mitigation agreement have time constraints on the construction as well, such as the case of the Atlantic Sturgeon.
Until the case is settled, Dominion has said it will hold off on further construction of the towers, and the earliest the deepwater tower foundations could be ready is April 2018, according to Meadows.
But historical preservation and conservation groups across the region have said they’ll continue to fight construction of the towers in court to put a final stop to the project.
“Are we willing to let big business industrialize America’s birthplace?” said Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the Washington D.C. based National Parks Conservation Association. Reasonable alternatives exist that would provide electricity to the region while also preserving Jamestown’s historic landscape and the James River. We will continue to fight to protect this place for future generations to experience it as we have.”