Power lines proposed over the Captain John Smith National Historic Water Trail near Jamestown Island
Dominion Power cites demand from Virginia’s tidewater communities; opposing coalition seeks alternatives
The Virginia State Corporation Commission has approved Virginia Dominion Power's application to construct a 7.4-mile high-voltage transmission line that crosses the James River within site of historic Jamestown Island and which spans the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
The river crossing is part of a larger project to meet increased demand for electric power from Virginia tidewater communities, including the Northern Neck, middle and lower peninsulas and Hampton Roads areas.
The commission’s decision, made November 26, 2013, came in spite of efforts by national, state, regional, and local organizations to find a different route that would have less impact on the natural, historic, and cultural resources of James River below Jamestown Island.
The US Army Corps of Engineers will now review the project. Its approval is needed before construction can begin.
The Dominion proposal includes a 500,000-volt transmission line from the Surry Power Station over the James to a switching station on Skiffes Creek in eastern James City County and a new 230,000-volt transmission line along existing Dominion right-of-way to an existing substation in the City of Hampton.
Dominion also plans to retire components of two near-by coal-fired plants that are part of the existing grid by 2015 because they will not meet federal air quality standards without costly upgrades.
The SCC concluded that “a broad swatch of the Commonwealth” could likely expect a decrease in electric service reliability if Dominion’s system is not reinforced by 2015.
The commission also found the proposal, known as the Surrey-Skiffes alternative, “the least cost viable alternative for addressing the identified … reliability violations presented in this case, (that) can be constructed in a timely manner.”
Opponents contend that the proposed route, crossing the Captain John Smith trail, the first – and only --national historic water trail, would dramatically alter an historic and largely undeveloped stretch of the lower James near Jamestown and Williamsburg..
The coalition that opposes the river crossing includes Preservation VA, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Garden Club of VA, Colonial Williamsburg, National Parks Conservation Association, Scenic Virginia, James River Association, Chesapeake Conservancy, and Save the James Alliance.
In June 2013, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated this stretch of the lower James as one of "America’s Most Endangered Historic Places,” due to the proposed power line, which would “compromise the scenic integrity of historic cultural areas” including the John Smith National Historic Water Trail, Carter’s Grove, Jamestown Island, and Colonial National Historical Park.
The power line across the James must be high enough to accommodate commercial ship traffic. According to preliminary designs, the crossing would require at least seven towers crossing the river with the tallest one 295 feet off the water.
For reference, opponents point to the Statute of Liberty with a height of 305 feet.
The towers – though distant -- would be visible from the tip of Jamestown Island and from the Colonial Parkway, which connects Jamestown to Historic Williamsburg.
The Captain John Smith National Historic Water Trail traces the route of Smith's explorations of the Chesapeake Bay from 1607 to 1609.
The water trail highlights existing landscapes that are still evocative of the views that settlers encountered when they arrived in the early 1600s. Landscapes that are free from most modern development help visitors and local communities understand the changes that have occurred.
Bill Street, the James River Association’s executive director, testified that the proposed route “would detract from the trail by imposing a large industrial and modern structure in a landscape that currently possesses strong characteristics of the natural and historic resources that the trail is trying to convey.”
There are environmental concerns, too.
James Brunkow, Lower James Riverkeeper, notes that the lower James is a region where juvenile Atlantic sturgeon congregate prior to leaving the Chesapeake Bay until it is time to return to spawn as adults. Atlantic sturgeon – a federally endangered species – are known to spawn in the James River below Richmond.
While the SCC's ruling acknowledges concerns about historic preservation and environmental impacts, it is required by law to “ balance the interests of citizens, businesses, and customers in regulating Virginia’s business and economic concerns.”
Margaret Nelson Fowler, member of the Save the James Alliance, has participated in the public meetings required during the SCC review process. She is hopeful that the Corps of Engineers will take another look at alternatives to the towers across the James River.
“At the end of the day,” said Fowler, “there isn’t anyone who thinks this is a good idea except the SCC and Dominion.”
Fowler, Brunkow, and other members of the coalition contend that the only other alternative given serious consideration by Dominion and the SCC was one that had the power line crossing the James upstream of Jamestown. That route would have also spanned the Chickahominy River.
“Unfortunately,” said Brunkow, during the SCC review, the way the alternatives were presented, “it pitted the people who didn’t want it across the Chickahominy against the other alternative – the Surry/Skiffes crossing – as the only other option.”
“It ended up being a choice between two bad options,” Brunkow said.
Opponents contend that other options have not been fully explored, such as laying the cables under the James River or using towers that cross the James further downstream at the James River Bridge between the Isles of Wight County and Newport News.
The proposal is now in the hands of the Corps of Engineers, which is reviewing public comments and awaiting information from Dominion, according to Randy Steffey, project manager at the Corps’ Norfolk District.
As part of the joint permit application required for this project, the Corps will coordinate with state and federal agencies to assess impacts to historic and natural resources, including impacts on endangered species. Steffey said in an email that the Corps would conduct an Environmental Assessment, rather than the full review, called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS.
Preservation Virginia’s executive director, Elizabeth Kostelny, hopes that other alternatives will be explored during the Corps review of the project. "We hope that there will be a full environmental review through an EIS, because this will provide opportunities for more public participation and help ensure that the least environmentally damaging, practical alternative is selected.”
Regardless of whether an EIS review is conducted, coalition members are determined to continue to be part of the conversation. Preservation Virginia and other groups have requested “consulting parties status,” which, Kostelny said, will put them at the table with Dominion while alternatives are explored.
Kostelny said that this section of the James River is not only a place of national importance, but is also internationally significant because of the conflicts fought and determined along the river.
“We are really only temporary stewards of these places,” she said. “One can still get that sense of place without a lot of modern distractions.”
But, she said, “this is more than just a beautiful view; this is the economic basis of these communities,” referring to the counties and towns that make up Virginia’s “historic triangle.”
“The main thing,” said Kostelny, “is to get this issue into the public process.” Once that happens, she said she is confident that alternatives will emerge. There have to be solutions where we can protect these resources while Dominion is able to secure its commitments to the public.
“Let’s go ahead and find solutions that meet all of our needs.”