Oct. 07--JAMES CITY -- The Army Corps of Engineers said running power lines beneath the James River is not a viable option for Dominion Virginia Power, scuttling environmental and preservation groups hopes the river's viewshed could be protected through that option.
Running power lines underground, beneath the riverbed, would be too complex of a challenge at a substantially higher cost, according to a preliminary report compiled by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The determination was a blow to opponents of the proposed overhead 500-kilovolt transmission lines Dominion wants to build from its Surry Power Station to Skiffes Creek. The Corps is considering whether to grant Dominion a permit to build the transmission line towers, some as tall as 295 feet, across the river.
Preservation groups have argued that the transmission towers would threaten the historic viewshed of the James River and disturb environmentally sensitive sites.
The preliminary report on the alternatives submitted by Dominion did not make any suggestion on whether the utility giant should receive the permit.
According to the report prepared by the Corps, "underground lines in general present reliability and operational concerns, as locating and repairing damaged underground lines is significantly more difficult than locating and repairing overhead lines."
The Corps said it evaluated existing underground projects "for comparison" which it said supported information supplied by Dominion. But opposition groups, including Save the James Alliance, have argued the Corps needs more independent analysis done in order to make a decision.
The Corps said using an underground line would require "cutting-edge" technology. According to Bonita Billingsley Harris, a spokeswoman for Dominion, the size of the 500-kilovolt lines were prohibitive to running them through the ground. " It's an exorbitant expense, to put it underwater, the reliability of it would not be strong," she said. Harris said the power company uses underground lines from Hayes, Va. to Yorktown under the York River, but said the lines are much smaller and carry less voltage.
Patrick Bloodgood, a Corps spokesman, said while the information considered was submitted by Dominion and other consultant parties, including opposition groups, the Corps does a critical evaluation of each proposal and fact checks claims.
"We have our engineers and our experts review the analysis reports provided, and we weigh in on whether those are correct or those don't look to be correct," he said. Bloodgood compared the process to a doctoral candidate defending their dissertation.
The Corps found the only two viable options for compliance with North American Electric Reliability Corporation Standards were Dominion's preferred alternative, the Surry-Skiffes Creek line, or a larger project that would run 500-kilovolt cables from a substation in Charles City County to Skiffes Creek.
While Dominion's preferred route would cost about $180 million to complete, the Charles City County option, which would involve crossing the Chickahominy River, would cost about $265 million.
It would stretch over a 37 mile right of way that Dominion owns, and would require 24 miles of that right of way to be cleared.
The Army Corps of Engineers recently announced it will host a public hearing on the Dominion proposal, after months of speculation on whether it would brief the public on the project. For months now, the Corps have solicited written feedback from the public.
Many other public agencies like the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization host public hearings on major projects in the proposed localities to give information and also get comment in a variety of formats, including verbal responses that are input by stenographers or audio recording.
Dominion also held its own public hearing on the switching station it would like to build to complete the project in James City County during the summer.
"There's been a lot of people who requested that we do it," Bloodgood said. "We looked at the situation and evaluated it. We never ruled it out, and we said let's have a public hearing. We want to hear from folks who are not necessarily part of the consultant parties," he said.
Michael Hipple, Chairman of the James City County Board of Supervisors shrugged at the news the Corps would host a public hearing. "We'll just have to monitor and watch what they do," Hipple said.
Tom Walker, chief of the regulatory office for the local Corps office, said the permit review process was about "75 percent complete," but that the last 25 percent of the process would be among the lengthiest parts of the review.
Bogues can be reached by phone at 757-345-2346.
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