Why So Long to Decide about Surry-Skiffes?

View of a Dominion transmission line crossing the James in Newport News downstream from the proposed Surry-Skiffes project.

View of a Dominion transmission line crossing the James in Newport News downstream from the proposed Surry-Skiffes project. Photo credit: Daily News.

Tick, tock! The April 15 deadline is fast approaching for when Dominion Virginia Power will have to shut down its Yorktown One and Two coal-fired units, leaving the Virginia Peninsula vulnerable to blackouts. That risk will hang over the region, home to a half million people, for a year-and-a-half or more — for however long it takes to gain regulatory approval for a solution and then build a replacement source of electric power,

The question every Virginian should ask: What is going on inside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? What is taking so long to make a decision, either yea or nay? Whatever the final outcome, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the regulatory process is badly broken.

Dominion has known for several years that it would have to replace the capacity of the Yorktown units. It conducted an alternatives analysis, and then considered running a transmission line down the spine of the Peninsula before scotching the idea because the line would cross too many wetlands, subdivisions and Indian lands. Then the utility settled on building a 500 kV transmission line across the James River near Jamestown. PJM Interconnection, the organization that runs the multi-state electric grid that includes Virginia, has repeatedly confirmed that that the Surry-Skiffes Creek route selected by Dominion is the most cost effective. Dominion obtained State Corporation Commission approval for the project in 2013 and survived a Virginia Supreme Court challenge.  The Environmental Protection Agency has given Dominion two one-year extensions on the operation of the Yorktown power stations.

The final regulatory hurdle was gaining a permit from the Norfolk office of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has to balance the economic justification of the project against environmental and conservation considerations. By August 2013, when Dominion submitted a revised permit request, the proposal had stirred up intense resistance from citizens and conservation groups on the grounds that the Surry-Skiffes line’s high steel towers would ruin views of a historically sacred stretch of river, which has remained largely unspoiled since English settlers landed at Jamestown.

For three-and-a-half years, the Corps has solicited public input, held public hearings, examined alternative solutions, and considered Dominion proposals — $85 million worth — to mitigate the loss of historical and cultural resources. (See the Corp’s regulatory time-line here.) All this time Dominion has been sounding the warning that after April 15 the Peninsula would be at risk of region-wide blackouts.

For roughly 60 days a year, during periods of peak electric load, the electric lines bringing in power from outside the region would be running at close to peak capacity. The system would be only one unplanned outage of a transmission line away from a crisis. National electric reliability standards require Dominion to maintain enough redundancy in the system to withstand two simultaneous contingencies. Rather than risk a cascading blackout like the one that knocked out electric power for 50 million Americans and Canadians in the infamous 2003 blackout, PJM would order Dominion to “shed load” to eliminate the risk. During hot summer months or cold winter months, controlled blackouts could become a frequent event on the Peninsula.

There is no question that the Army Corps has a hard decision to make with Surry-Skiffes — whether to risk economically disruptive blackouts until a new solution can be found or to mar an irreplaceable historical treasure. But the longer it waits, the longer it puts the region at risk. If it gives the OK tomorrow, it would still take Dominion a year and a half to build the transmission line. If the corps declines to issue the permit, the utility will take even longer to devise an alternative, gain the necessary permits and build whatever needs to be built. Either way, the interminable decision-making process has put the Peninsula economy at risk.

The scandal here is not the necessity of obtaining Army Corps approval. The country needs a mechanism to evaluate the merits of giant infrastructure projects against the harm they might pose to communities. The scandal is the length of time it takes to reach that decision. Three-and-a-half years is way too long. The system is broken. It needs to be fixed.

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20 responses to “Why So Long to Decide about Surry-Skiffes?

  1. Here’s a map of the proposed crossing. It appears that they could shift the angle of the crossing to go directly to the actual mouth of Skiffes Creek and in the process be out of the view of Jamestown.

    What am I missing here? Why doesn’t the Corp request the shift as a way to avoid the viewshed impact?

    Also – PJM did not sign off on this path – nor the cost – they only agreed from a grid perspective that this connection had the electricity necessary to meet reliability standards. To say otherwise implies that PJM supports Dominion’s choice of path. And to suggest that PJM has approved the “cost-effectiveness” is also probably not the case. That’s not their role and cost itself can be subjective.. because there is more than minimum dollar cost in the analysis.

  2. Correct about PJM — they take the view that the siting issues, the “convenience” part of the “convenience and necessity” showing, are the constructing utility’s problem; they support the “necessity” part.

    The Corps of Engineers is truly a marvel of dysfunction, an embarrassment even to the federal bureaucracy that has brought us such marvels of expediency as the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation. The CE’s responsibilities for water projects (dams, barge canals, harbors and levees, and signoff on anything crossing a shipping lane) are located right at that fantastical intersection of the Military-Industrial Complex and Pork Politics. Absent pressure from Congress (particularly from those committees which have jurisdiction over DOD), which will get their attention, my impression is the CE doesn’t care a twit about deadlines, or inconvenience to Dominion, or cost to the ratepayers, or the public. Their solution to any intractable controversy is to sit on it until one side or the other mobilizes Congress on their side.

    If there were a simple solution to this, such as a viewshed shift, or (I mentioned this earlier) simply eating the cost of burying the cables under the river mud, Dominion would still have to get the both the SCC and the CE to sign off on the change. The SCC shouldn’t be that difficult to persuade, but motivating the CE to do anything requires moving Congressional mountains and Congress has some other pretty big fish to fry these days. If I worked for Dominion I’d be looking hard at any alternative, temporary or permanent, that doesn’t require CE approval.

  3. Imagine that kind of delay and indecision on a battlefield. Makes you shudder.

    • Battlefields and National Parks , State Parks, and basically any recognized 4f resource – Parks, recreation areas, and refuges Historic sites are not only off limits to Dominion but VDOT and other agencies with proposals that have impacts to these sites.

      The very first thing most of these agencies do is find and identify the 4f sites that might be affected by their proposals and then try to avoid them if possible.

      Part of the REQUIRED process IS to : ” Identify the Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative”

      it is NOT required that this be the chosen alternative but the process DOES REQUIRE that it be identified.

      what is that alternative for this project ? Does anyone know? Has it been prominently shown by Dominion or ACE?

      I have not seen it myself… but it should be well known and recognized and really the focus because it basically contrasts with the preferred alternative.

      I would submit to you that this process needs to be followed to help everyone understand what the potential alternatives are – and are not as a needed exercise that would then move the process along.

      When you don’t do this – and the public is not on board understand it – then opposition can and often does mount and becomes stubborn and in this case just as intractable as Dominion is being on performing a legitimate alternatives analysis.

      you can blame the NIMBY’s I do too – but if you’re going to be honest – you have to also recognize that Dominion from the get go on this has been “our way or the highway” and they are every bit as much part of the impasse as the NIMBY’s are.

      So don’t blame ACE – they are, in general no more or less susceptible to political influences than say the DEQ has been on the coal ash issue or for that matter FERC on the pipeline issue.

      For Dominion to continue to insist that the ONLY WAY to do this is what they originally proposed and have steadfastly refused to even look for reasonable compromises is grossly irresponsible and arrogant – condescending even to any kind of basic intention to TRY to find reasonable compromises.

      Dominion is no better than the NIMBYs.

    • Putting so many people at risk of blackouts by failing to make a timely decision should subject some soldiers in the Corps of Engineers to court martial.

  4. re: ” Their solution to any intractable controversy is to sit on it until one side or the other mobilizes Congress on their side.”

    I dunno. Look at the US-460 issue in which they withstood withering political pressure from McDonnell and VDOT to approve and in the end – US 460 got dramatically change from the original proposal – and then abandoned by VDOT.

    I have zero sympathy for Dominion. They have proven to be – intractable – refusing any/all compromises and in effect have basically challenged to opponents to try to beat them.

    The “alternatives” they have presented are basically shams that even opponents would agree are not up to the task.

    but they have ignored other alternatives such as powerlines across the James further down where they already exist and they have made money the issue even though they are apparently willing to provide more than 80 million dollars in mitigation but not 80 million dollars in a different, longer powerline route south of the turn in the river which would effectively remove the lines from the more sensitive areas around Jamestown.

    Also little discussed is the fact that there are TWO power plants on Surry and the second one is a peaker plant with 6 turbines – 4 gas and 2 fuel oil name Gravel Neck.

    Gravel Neck Power Station

    Net Generating Capacity: 368 megawatts

    Generating Capacity by Unit:

    Unit 1- 12 megawatts
    Unit 2- 16 megawatts
    Unit 3- 85 megawatts
    Unit 4- 85 megawatts
    Unit 5- 85 megawatts
    Unit 6- 85 megawatts
    Commercial Operation:
    Two units in 1970
    Four units in 1989

    an obvious question is what is the service area of the Gravel Neck plant as well as the Surry Nuclear plant right now?

  5. re:
    Two units in 1970
    Four units in 1989
    and 1973 – Surry Nuclear Plant comes online

    the timeline – these powerplants came online 40 years ago.

    the power they produced did not cross the James north to the Penninsula

    that pretty much means those plants 1598 MW + the 368 MW – about 2000MW in total were powering something other than the Penninsula.

    So what the powerline proposal is – in fact, is a proposal to re-direct those two 40-year plants to power the Peninsula which ought to lead to a question as to what will then power the service areas that they used to power before being re-directed to the Peninsula?

    One would think that – that kind of a plan would also require detailing how power would be provided to the service areas served before before the supplying plants would be re-directed?

    How can you redirect that power without causing NEW reliability problems to the areas that will no longer be served by Surry after it is redirected?

    This is why I have asked about PJMs view about redirection of Surry in terms of the reliability of the areas that Surry was serving before re-directing?

    It would seem to be an obvious part of the Surry plan – to not only analyze the improved reliability of the grid for the peninsula but also what happens to the reliability of the areas that will lose Surry when it is re-directed?

    Why is this not part of the discussion?

  6. I am not sure this is purely a Corps of Engineers issue. I have been involved with them in several large projects and things went along in a timely fashion. I think they have been presented with two unsuitable options: disrupting one of our nation’s most significant historic landmarks and potentially harming the tourism business so important to this area of Virginia and facing the prospect of rolling blackouts (probably not as often as Dominion is threatening, but likely nonetheless).

    The real travesty here is that better options have not been presented. This is a case of being stuck in 20th-century thinking. I am not blaming Dominion. They are only thinking within the box created by our current regulations. But this shouldn’t be that hard.

    I believe the issue is caused by the forced retirement of the two Yorktown Units (1&2) which are a combined 300 megawatts. It would not seem too difficult or too time-consuming to develop a portfolio of projects (privately funded so no cost to Dominion or the ratepayers) that would include energy efficiency (to reduce load), renewables to provide local generation, some storage (maybe provided by PJM) to shift renewable generation later in the day to cover the peaks, and some dispatchable combined heat and power (CHP) that would both provide electricity and lower the heating and cooling loads.

    With all of the residences, businesses, and industrial facilities in the area this could be accomplished if more people knew about it. And it could bring an influx of jobs and economic activity to the area.

    I believe Dominion’s stubbornness is part of the problem. They have refused to consider adding gas-fired peakers at Yorktown saying they are too expensive. As I recall in one of Jim’s columns about this a few months ago, the cost of an upgraded gas line would create transport charges that would be less than what is charged by the ACP, but Dominion said it was too high. If anyone has more data on that, please post it.

    We definitely need a third option here to break the deadlock. What I have suggested would be good to introduce Virginia to a 21st-century energy system in a way that would help Dominion avoid a problem too.

  7. re: stubborn

    worse than that. According to Dominion – the ONLY viable alternative is the one they originally chose – knowing it would have impacts to Jamestown.

    and since that time they have done virtually nothing constructive towards any kind of a compromise – at all.

    To basically say the ONLY way to deal with the needs of the Peninsula is one path so strains credulity that the only other explanation is cynicism and arrogance. I fault ACE for NOT standing up to Dominion LIKE THEY DID to VDOT on US 460 and doing it quickly and with resolve.

    I do NOT think they need to “fix” the viewshed for folks expensive waterfront homes – just Jamestown.

    What we have in this particular ACE is a lack of a spine to not let Dominion be a bully. ACE stared VDOT down on US-460. Apparently something has changed at ACE and now they’re basically letting Dominion intimidate them.
    ACE needs to grow a backbone and get on with it and force a compromise – one that would not reward the NIMBYs nor kowtow to Dominion’s scare tactics and corporate bullying.

    And finally – give demerits to the elected State and Federal weenies for hiding on this… they could likely stop the delay with a little “encouragement”.

    • I think you are misinterpreting the CE’s actions on US460. They simply did nothing but follow their own precedent. They were certain to do this unless Congress intervened. The opposition was a bunch of State of VA people they could care less about. The CE is the most arrogant and dismissive bunch of spineless, risk-avoiding bureaucrats I have ever met and their only redeeming virtue is that their kneejerk reaction in favor of keeping waterways open for commerce usually puts they on the side of making no changes to waterways, which favors the opposition to projects that would disturb the status quo. Believe me, if you ever depended upon their timely application of common sense to a novel situation you cared about, where the result you wanted differed from even the weakest precedent, you would be BADLY disappointed.

      • @Acbar – you may not CARE for the ACE but the reality for the US460 project was that they were under tremendous pressure from the Governor and the Secretary of Transportation to issue a permit for that project or Virginia was going to lose more than 260 million dollars on if ACE did not approve it.

        If they were “spineless”.. they sure as heck stuck it to the State!! They stood firm and refused to issue the permit!

        here – let me refresh your memory:

        ” The final bill has come due on the abortive U.S. 460 toll expressway pushed by the administration of then-Gov. Bob McDonnell — $260 million, most of it to a private contractor paid by the state without a federal permit to build the road through hundreds of acres of wetlands.”

        let’s repeat: “… without a Federal permit”

        “The road, initially estimated to cost $1.4 billion, would have cost $1.8 billion to finish, according to a draft environmental impact statement last fall that said the now-abandoned project would have destroyed more than 600 acres of wetlands.
        ……

        A special review by the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Office of the State Inspector General a year ago described the procurement process for the project as “either very aggressive or extremely aggressive” and “driven by the secretary of transportation,” then Sean T. Connaughton.
        ……
        But the state already had received strong signals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the agency had problems with issuing a permit under the Clean Water Act to destroy hundreds of acres of wetlands more than originally estimated for the project.

        http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/book-closes-on-u-s-project-at-million-cost-to/article_fa9c6c75-1b39-5255-8358-5545a3e2eafa.html

        so – the long and short of it is that the ACE stood their ground and Virginia lost hundreds of millions of dollars as a result.

        I’d submit to you that “spineless” does NOT describe the ACE in the US460 circumstance. They warned VDOT from the get-go and VDOT ignored them and brought intense political pressure but the ACE stood their ground… as the news article shows that history.

        I see Dominion acting similarly to VDOT … and I’d say again – it strains credulity that there is ONLY ONE FEASIBLE PATH for those powerlines and that there is NO WAY to avoid viewshed impacts to Jamestown.

        That is patently not true… and yet that continues to be the position of Dominion.

        And the ACE is basically signaling that they’re not convinced that this is the only path… that there is no way to avoid viewshed impacts to Jamestown.

        A “spineless” agency would have signed off on this – LONG AGO!

        • Larry, you’re muddying the waters here by suggesting that anyone thinks there is “only one feasible path.” What definition are you using? An engineering definition? An economic definition? Or a political definition?

          It is “feasible” from an engineering perspective to run the 500 kV transmission line under the river bed. But that would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost structure and make it more difficult (and expensive) to perform maintenance. Clearly, we need to distinguish between what is feasible from an engineering perspective and what is feasible from an economic perspective.

          I don’t think there’s any dispute that the James River route is the most economically feasible if you assume that disrupting the viewshed of a historical river has no cost. Of course, there is a cost, but that cost is so intangible that it is difficult to measure and assign a value to.

          Bottom line: Feasibility depends largely upon how you frame the issue.

  8. re: the process:

    The Process
    Pre-Application Consultations
    Permit Application
    Determine complete
    Issue Public Notice – 30 day Public Comment Period
    Consider and Review Comments
    Other Laws Pursuant to our Permit Review
    Statement of Findings
    Alternatives Analysis to determine Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative
    404(b)(1) Guidelines Evaluation
    Public Interest Review
    Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) or Finding of Significant Impact (FOSI)
    Permit approved/denied

    can anyone show the ” Alternatives Analysis to determine Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative” ?

    I do not think the April 15 “deadline” for Yorktown – affects the process the ACE is to follow… but perhaps others know otherwise – if so.. weigh in.

    The ACE laid out the process long ago on this – and as far as I can tell – it is following that timeline and there is no “delay” – no more or less “delay” than we’d see with the DEQ working the coal ash issues or even FERC dealing with the ACL pipeline issue.

    the entire point of the NEPA process is to make an “informative decision” which REQUIRES a thorough process to determine impacts and alternatives.

    People get frustrated with the “process” .. usually the ones who want the project built… but I’d point out that the NEPA process HAS BEEN “streamlined” in that if there are multiple permits needed from multiple agencies that those separate processes occur simultaneously, concurrently, rather than consecutively…

    AT ANY TIME – Dominion can propose the LEDP to shorten the process… without sitting back and insisting that their preferred route is the only route they’ll agree to .. and basically force the more lengthy process which may well end up denying their preferred route if the ACE determines that there ARE less damaging routes – even if more expensive.

    That’s EXACTLY what happened to US460. VDOT drew a line on the map and the ACE said “no” to it and sent VDOT back to the drawing boards.. which in VDOT’s case was AFTER VDOT had committed financially to it’s original path.

    The upshot of that fiasco was that VDOT will not do that again.. i.e. pick a path and expect the ACE to approve it – as proposed.

    We don’t know how Dominions proposal will play out but unless someone knows otherwise – the process is playing out as it was originally stipulated by ACE. There is no delay. It’s just Dominion wanting a favorable decision now.

    They play this same game with DEQ over the coal ash issue. They do not want further analysis and study – they want a decision now and the one they want is to bury it in place.

    All this really boils down to is what Dominion wants and their obvious disdain for the process that puts that decision in someone else’s hands other than theirs. Their response is to complain about the process and the agencies conducting the process.

    • Larry, You have provided a useful service here by laying out the elements of the permit-approval process. The question you need to ask now is whether it is reasonable for that process to take 3 1/2 years (and counting).

      I’m not pre-supposing a decision either for or against Dominion. I’m just saying that a yes or no answer allows Dominion to move on to the next phase, whether it is building the transmission line or start lining up permits for the next-best solution. Either way, the Peninsula will be put at risk for at least a year-and-a-half of episodic blackouts.

      • Jim – Here’s another example of what Dominion “wants”:

        ” During a U.S. Senate committee hearing on energy infrastructure last week, a top official at Dominion, which is pushing for permission to build a much-contested $5.1 billion, 600-mile natural gas pipeline through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, leveled some not-so-subtle criticism at the federal agencies overseeing the permitting process.”

        http://www.richmond.com/business/testimony-correspondence-show-friction-between-dominion-u-s-forest-service/article_5cc6ca1f-02eb-5384-a02a-02cb2426a764.html

        Now one question is – is ACE much different than FERC or for that matter DEQ?

        Isn’t this really more about what Dominion wants and their disdain for the govt agencies making the decision on the govt agencies timelines instead of DOminion just going ahead with their “Plans”?

        I’m frustrated with DEQ dragging their feet on the coal ash decisions.. why is it taking so long? 😉

        isn’t this basically the process for “rule of law”?

        don’t most all legal actions whether for Corporate permits or even the most petty crimes take time?

        geeze… some of these court cases over crime or liability can take years!

  9. “The entire point of the NEPA process is to make an “informative decision” which REQUIRES a thorough process to determine impacts and alternatives.”. OK — I’ll grant you ‘thorough’, but the other operative word is ‘decision’. The CE refuses to decide anything. They just sit on applications until the applicants go away exhausted and/ or disgusted. Don’t think of this as “standing up to” the bad guys, they are the opposite of principled in the way they refuse to think about, even to consider, what’s in the public interest. It’s all about following precedent & avoiding bureaucratic risk, never about doing what’s right.

    I remember when the Richmond Downtown Expressway was blocked for years in the 1970s by an activist group protesting the obliteration of some remains of the old JR&K Canal, which last floated a boat through Richmond in the 1880s. The CE’s position was that the proper procedures for shutting down an interstate waterway had never been followed (90 years earlier) so the canal was still “active” and could not be blocked by highway construction or real estate development. It took federal, Congressional pressure to compel CE to acknowledge that the canal was in fact abandoned and buried or obliterated by Mr. Huntington’s C&O railroad. I was cheering them on in those days — historic preservation needs all the help it can get, even accidental help — but I’ve seen the ugly side of this too, blocking bridge construction and economically worthy projects irrationally.

    Take the current situation:. A rational federal agency would have used its leverage to “approve with conditions” to haul in all the parties, knock heads and hammer out a settlement three years ago that works for everyone — like, bury the river crossing and keeping the lights on and businesses and jobs on the Peninsula. Instead the CE simply sat on it; and since something has to be done, it will be done at much greater expense by avoiding their jurisdiction entirely, and probably in just as damaging a way although to other geography. What a waste.

    • re: ” The CE refuses to decide anything. They just sit on applications until the applicants go away exhausted and/ or disgusted. Don’t think of this as “standing up to” the bad guys, they are the opposite of principled in the way they refuse to think about, even to consider, what’s in the public interest. It’s all about following precedent & avoiding bureaucratic risk, never about doing what’s right.”

      Acbar – are you familiar with the US 460 decision?

      would you say that in that decision that the ACE would not even “consider” a decision?

  10. @Acbar – the COE published the process when the process started:

    The Process
    Pre-Application Consultations
    Permit Application
    Determine complete
    Issue Public Notice – 30 day Public Comment Period
    Consider and Review Comments
    Other Laws Pursuant to our Permit Review
    Statement of Findings
    Alternatives Analysis to determine Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative
    404(b)(1) Guidelines Evaluation
    Public Interest Review
    Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) or Finding of Significant Impact (FOSI)
    Permit approved/denied

    explain to me how they have delayed the process…

    as far as I can tell – they are progressing through the timeline they originally said they would.

    and so is FERC….

    are you frustrated with the process itself wanting it to be changed because you think that defined process is too long?

    If you are frustrated by COE are you also frustrated by DEQ or FERC for “delays”?

    How about the EPA and the CPP (sic?) … or other EPA proposed rules like the Chesapeake Bay TMDL process?

    again – are you frustrated with the defined processes or are you accusing COE of delays that are slowing down the formal process?

    I have yet to see the Least. Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative [LEDPA]) … so where is that? and don’t you need that before you can make a decision?

    Whose job is it to define that alternative?

  11. The U.S. has taken adminstrative law farther than any other nation, to my knowledge, particularly under federal law. Our big agencies deal with complex, technical or arcane fields dominated by experts and egos and time consuming investigations and hearings. But there is oversight by the agency which, if it’s an executive agency, is headed by a political appointees.

    The problem is, who makes the agencies behave? Now suppose you’ve got this hotly contested question before your agency, with strong political feelings about this issue in the legislature that approves your budget. You’re supposed to be making an independent expert decision. Instead, you sit on it.

    Most agencies are highly risk averse. They have deadlines that for certain types of sensitive cases they routinely ignore. And there’s very little an outsider can do, unless it gets so bad that the legislature or Chief Executive totally loses patience and cleans house. Often the agency’s decisionmaking delay is exactly what higher-ups secretly want to happen.

    You point to the schedule laid out in this case and how the CE has ticked off lots of preliminary steps. This is typical of an agency that’s expert in risk avoidance and delay. No matter how many times you move another half the distance towards the finish line you will never actually get there until you are ready to. The CE rarely takes it upon itself to read the prevailing political winds, since so many of its decisions involve political pork. It waits for Congressional pressure to be announced through witnesses and letters to the record. Why act unless you know your back is covered?

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