Since including the James River near Jamestown, Virginia, on the annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2013, the National Trust and our partners, including Preservation Virginia, as well as preservation advocates around the country have urged the Army Corps of Engineers to explore alternatives that protect the James River’s cultural landscape from Dominion’s misguided transmission line. During the initial review of the project, almost 30,000 people signed a petition during the Down to the Wire campaign demanding that an alternative be identified. Tens of thousands of people responded to the Army Corps’ opportunities for public comment and hundreds more testified in-person at locally held public meetings. This public opposition to the transmission line is understandable given the James River landscape’s historic significance. From serving as home to the Powhatan confederacy, to the transportation route for the first enslaved Africans brought to North America, to the site of the first successful English settlement at Jamestown, layers of American history have occurred in this location.
In 2016, in an effort to offer some constructive alternative solutions, the National Trust commissioned a report that identified technically feasible, less costly to construct alternatives. Despite the existence of alternative projects that would avoid an overhead crossing of the James River, the Army Corps of Engineers pushed forward and approved the permit needed to construct Dominion’s proposed project in July 2017. The National Trust swiftly challenged this decision in court as a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). After suffering a setback at the district court level, the D.C. Court of Appeals agreed that the Army Corps violated federal law in issuing the permit and ordered the agency to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as NEPA requires and consider alternatives that would avoid impacts to National Historic Landmark Carter’s Grove Plantation as required by Section 110(f) of the NHPA.
Early in the litigation, the district court allowed Dominion to continue construction of the transmission line project while the case was litigated. As a result, construction was completed, and the project was energized, prior to the appellate court’s determination that the permit was issued unlawfully. On remand to the lower court for further proceedings, the district court again declined to revoke the permit for the project while the EIS is prepared.
In the summer of 2019, the Army Corps restarted the permitting review process, but progress on the EIS has been slow. The agency held a public meeting near the project site in James City County, Virginia and accepted initial scoping comments on the EIS. The National Trust has remained committed to ensuring that a full range of reasonable alternatives are carefully evaluated in the EIS. Based on the inadequate information provided to the public about project alternatives and impacts at the scoping meeting, the National Trust determined that an updated independent engineering report on alternatives would be necessary. The National Trust presented the updated report to the Army Corps last fall.
The report found that since the transmission line was originally proposed in 2012, the electrical transmission system and the sources of electricity generation in Virginia have changed dramatically. Electrical demand in the region has declined sharply. Taking these changes into account, the engineering experts determined that operating the transmission line across the James River is not necessary to maintain electric reliability. Because new electrical generation and transmission projects are constantly being proposed and older plants are sometimes retired, the consultants also identified new projects that could be constructed to ensure continued electrical reliability in the region well into the future. All of the alternatives identified avoid an overhead crossing of the James River and associated impacts to historic resources, are technically feasible, and less costly to construct.
Recently, the Army Corps posted the court-ordered Draft EIS for public review and comment. The DEIS completely fails to address the findings of the National Trust’s recent expert report. Instead, the Army Corps reaffirmed its support for the transmission line across the James River in the Draft EIS. It appears that the agency is poised to rubberstamp its previous decision, an outcome that would set a terrible precedent. If project applicants can pressure federal agencies to cut corners in environmental review processes, then rush to complete construction, and present the project as a fait accompli, it will undermine the effectiveness of the nation’s bedrock preservation and conservation laws.
Please take time to submit a public comment and urge the Army Corps to conduct this review process completely, impartially, and in service of the public interest. Comments are due on February 10, 2021. Alternatives to the transmission line across the James River exist, have always existed, and Dominion must be required to bear the cost of restoring the historic James River.
Sharee Williamson is a senior associate general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.