As the largest coal-burning plant in Virginia, Dominion’s Chesterfield Power Station is used to being harassed — mainly by environmentalists and residents who’d rather not have the facility in their backyard.
But none of the plant’s critics have been as relentless, foul smelling or perilous to the workforce as the flocks of black vultures that have plagued the facility south of Richmond on the James River.
For the last 35 years, the plant has been the unwilling gathering place of hundreds of these large, jet-black birds, drawn by the heat and lofty perches that the facility offers. Sometimes mistaken in the sky for eagles or hawks, they soar on thermals over the plant and roost en masse on its metal scaffolding.
While hanging out at the plant, they do a lot of pooping, picking and regurgitating — natural behavior for scavengers that feed on roadkill and trash, but decidedly unpleasant for humans on the receiving end. The birds’ white feces stained nearly every surface on one plant structure, dripping down the siding and coating electrical outlets and wiring. When fresh or moistened by rain, the waste reeks of ammonia and can pose slipping hazards for crews trying to do their jobs on metal walkways 300 feet above ground.
The birds also resorted to more overt acts of vandalism, picking at wiring and rubber seals with their sharp beaks.
“Over the years, we’ve done everything we could possibly do to make the vultures go away,” said Josh Bennett, the station director. Plant personnel tried every scare tactic in the bird diversion book to keep them away: streamers, air cannons, bird bangers, pyrotechnics and yellow “scowl” balls, which are a step above plastic owls because they flash and spin. Everything worked — for a week or two. Then the birds returned.
“They are unflappable,” Bennett said.
But so is Bo Bottoms, who became the station’s logistics supervisor two years ago. In other positions at the plant over the last 30 years, Bottoms spent a good portion of his time “working around the buzzard mess.”
When Bottoms took over supervising contractors working on elevators, scaffolding or cranes, he knew what they were going through when they ran into the slick mess the birds left behind. And he hated that he had to send them out more and more often just to clean it up, particularly on one of the station’s tallest smoke stacks where the birds liked to congregate.
The birds, long frequent visitors, had become a constant presence at the station since the early 2000s, when Dominion installed new air pollution controls. The 300-foot-tall selective catalytic reduction unit, or SCR, with its metal walkways and stairs, provided the perfect roost. One day, Bottoms took the elevator to the top to find dozens of them loafing around, unfazed by his presence.
Frustrated, he flapped his arms to shoo them away — and got an idea. What if the windsocks that car dealerships use to catch the eye of passing motorists on Midlothian Turnpike could get the birds’ attention?
The next day, he purchased a few of those brightly colored windsocks, giant grins painted across their fabric faces, to serve as dancing scarecrows on the structure. Bottoms could hardly believe it, but the new tactic worked for a few weeks, then a few months. It’s been a year since he installed the first windsocks on the SCR unit — and they’ve kept the birds at bay, but for a few bold ones in the winter.
“I’ve got a 20-footer up there now, and it’s gettin’ down,” Bottoms said.
“If there’s something with constant movement [the birds] ignore it,” he added. “But they don’t seem to handle random well.”
Vultures still roost on the smokestack, though. There, Bottoms hopes to engineer a windsock that can keep the birds off the narrow walkways around the towering structure without also endangering workers with the device’s wild flapping in the wind.
As vulture numbers have increased in the area south of Richmond, they have become a growing problem for residential neighborhoods and recreational facilities around the Dominion plant, including Henricus Historical Park, Dutch Gap Conservation Area and a nearby boat ramp. At the park, the birds take food left out for feral cats. At the boat ramp, they eat rubber windshield wipers and window seals. And, when perched on peoples’ homes, they even nibble on shingles, causing roofs to leak.
“In the greater Richmond area, there have always been large numbers of black vultures,” said Scott Barras, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program. The birds don’t migrate very far, nor do they follow consistent patterns. With Virginia in the middle of their Mid-Atlantic migratory path, they are a constant presence, and some have decided not to migrate at all.
Barras said his department received 361 complaints last year about black vultures.
While the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects the birds, it does allow for measured steps to deal with them when they become nuisances. Barras encourages people to try all the scare tactics that Dominion did first — and to do so with vigor. A plastic owl on the roof won’t cut it with this species, which tends to get used to human activity and be unfazed by minor inconveniences, such as a sporadic noisemaker.
“We recommend a dependable harassment regime, so they don’t get comfortable at a location,” Barras said. “If you take a non-lethal technique and leave it there for a long time, they can habituate and learn it’s not a threat.”
When all else fails, the department uses lethal techniques to remove the birds when necessary. Between 1999 and 2007, more than 1,200 black vultures were trapped and killed in Chesterfield County around the plant.
But Bennett said the Dominion plant hasn’t had to resort to that lately. Now, the windsocks — a 20-footer and three red-white-and-blue 10-foot socks installed for the 4th of July — are a more common sight on the machinery than black vultures, though they still circle overhead.
So, with inspiration from another institution that gets little respect – car dealers – Dominion has found a kinder, gentler way to get rid of at least one of its tormenters. It looks like the dancing bird bouncers are here to stay.