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Dominion’s James River Transmission Project

Sunset over the James River near historic Jamestown, Virginia // Photo © Blackghost600/Dreamstime.

More than 400 years of American history, including the first permanent English settlement in North America, were placed at critical risk in 2017 after the Army Corps of Engineers began construction on a nearly 7-mile-long stretch of massive 295-foot transmission towers within sight of Historic Jamestown and Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia.

Dominion Virginia Power, a for-profit energy company sponsoring the project, maintained that the state needed the energy from the power lines without which the regions could face rolling blackouts. However, the transmission project was met with considerable skepticism local officials as well as other federal agencies who criticized the project on the basis that transmission construction would have adverse impacts on historically significant land and endangered species within the area.

Moreover, research from a 2015 report from the National Parks Conservation Association and Princeton Energy Research International suggested that Dominion’s underlying case for building massive transmission towers was based on faulty analysis – Dominion’s transmission line would provide more than four times the needed grid capacity.

Seventeen towers like these at the James River Bridge in Newport News, Virginia, would forever mar the view from Colonial National Historical Park if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approves a permit request from Dominion Power // Photo © Margaret Fowler/Save the James Alliance.

The Army Corps of Engineers nonetheless pushed forward with the project, carrying out analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Passed into law with bipartisan support in 1969, NEPA requires federal agencies to complete an environmental review identifying and publicly disclosing any potential environmental, public health, or cultural impacts a project may have before a decision is made and the relevant permits are issued.

There was only one problem – the Army Corps of Engineers decided to carry out an Environmental Assessment (EA) instead of a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Whereas EAs are prepared for smaller projects and in cases where the impacts are uncertain, agencies are required to carry out an EIS for major projects like power plants and interstate highways.

Choosing to ignore tens of thousands of comments from concerned citizens as well as sharp criticism from other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Army Corps of Engineers concluded that the project would have no major impacts and that a detailed EIS was unnecessary. The Corps approved the project in 2017.

However, in a landmark court decision in March 2019, a federal appeals court found that the Army Corps of Engineers approval of Dominion’s transmission project to be in violation of NEPA on the basis that the permit was based on private research, lacked transparency and public engagement, and that the Corps  should have conducted an EIS.

Judge David Tatel described the significance of the area in detail, recounting Capt. John Smith’s voyage into the Chesapeake Bay and up the James River. “These journeys came to symbolize our nation’s founding and to serve as an equally important reminder of one of the darkest episodes in our history — the settlers’ devastation of Native American populations,” he wrote.

[1] “Appellate Court Says Corps Should Have Prepared EIS On James River Transmission Line.” National Parks Traveler. March 1, 2019. Available at: https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/2019/03/update-appellate-court-says-corps-should-have-prepared-eis-james-river-transmission-line

[2] Natl. Parks Cons. Assoc. v. Todd Semonite, et al. No. 18-5179 (D.C. Circ. 2019). Available at:
https://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/87FABC162438AE4B852583B000549984/$file/18-5179.pdf

[3] “Court decision could doom already built Va. power line.” E&E News. March 1, 2019. Available at:
https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060122819

[4] “5 Myths and 5 Facts About Dominion’s Ill-Conceived Transmission Line Plan at Historic Jamestown.” National Parks Conservation Association. October 21, 2016. Available at:
https://www.npca.org/articles/1346-5-myths-and-5-facts-about-dominion-s-ill-conceived-transmission-line-plan

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