Last week the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia rejected a last-ditch appeal by the National Parks Conservation Association and allied groups to block construction of the controversial high-voltage transmission line across the James River near Jamestown. Dominion Energy Virginia had embarked upon preliminary construction in February after winning a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, and the ruling clears the utility to complete the project by the summer of 2019.
Apparently, a favorable ruling was not a foregone conclusion. At the preliminary injunction phase, wrote Judge Royce C. Lamberth, the plaintiffs made “a powerful argument on the merits” that the Corps had issued the permit improperly. However, he added, “now that the Court has dug into the administrative record and relevant case law it is evident that the Corps made a “fully informed and well-considered decision.”
Lamberth made clear that he was not saying that the Corps made the correct decision; rather, it met all relevant standards and criteria for issuing the permit.
For those interested in the controversy, the guts of the ruling shed new light into aspects of the seemingly interminable Corps decision-making process.
Perhaps the most contentious issue was the visual impact of the 500 kV Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line upon a relatively pristine stretch of the James River associated with Jamestown and the English settlement of Virginia. Early in the controversy Dominion prepared visualizations showing the transmission-line towers as barely visible on the horizon when viewed from Jamestown Island. Power line foes disputed the accuracy of the renderings.
The Corps studied the visual impact in detail, creating a 400-page visual effects assessment, entitled the Cultural Resources Effects Assessment (CREA). Employing various vantage points and line-of-sight analyses, expert consultant Truescape created photo simulations demonstrating how the river crossing would appear to the human eye.
After the Corps made the document public, opposition groups criticized the Truescape methodology, noting that the analysis failed to analyze how the project would impact a visitor traveling on the river in close proximity to where the power line would cross the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historical Trail. “In other words,” summarized Lamberth, “while the CREA’s visual analysis captured what the electrical line would look like from historical vantage points on land, it would not capture the impact to a visitor traveling by boat on the river. He continued:
In response, the PhotoSimulation Overview was updated in June 2016 to include nearly 80 pages of additional reference photographs and visual simulations depicting views from the river. … Moreover, the PhotoSimulation Overview was updated again in August 2016 to include additional simulations based on a second round of photographs taken from the river.
Moreover, from a process perspective, the Corps held discussions with [the National Park Service] regarding its its methodological concerns and received an NPS guidance document on how to evaluate visual impact assessments. … The Corps forwarded the document to Dominion, asking them to address whether the methods used were comparable and what the plan would be going forward. … Dominion demonstrated that the methodology used followed NPS guidance and provide[d] reliable simulations of how the Project would look. Upon considering the methodological concerns raised by NPS and reviewing Dominion’s updated analysis, the Corps concluded:
“Dominion’s simulations provided enough accuracy to sufficiently analyze effects to both historic properties and a visitor’s experience. … While there are various methods for predicting visual impact it is not likely that employing further methods will result in substantively different views or information.”
In the ruling Lamberth also alluded to the involvement of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in the controversy.
NPS sent a detailed letter in January 2017, in which it pointed to “fundamental flaws” with the decision-making process that “remain unresolved.” NPS specifically noted the flawed visual analysis. Although the Corps was not required to accept NPS’s critique, Lamberth wrote, senior staff met with Interior Department officials to discuss the comments.
In March 2017, the new Secretary of the Interior Zinkie (sic), who ultimately presides over NPS, stated that the information that had been provided by the Corps reflected “thoughtful and thorough consideration of the issues raised by my predecessor. …”
Secretary Zinkie’s letter effectively withdrew the Department of Interior’s previous stance that an [Environmental Impact Statement] was required. “As we all know, elections have consequences” and the Interior Department’s shift in position demonstrates to the Court that there is no longer active disagreement between the Interior Department and the Corps.”
As it happened, Lamberth agreed with the Corps that the visual impact would not be significant. Boaters traveling the James, he wrote, already are exposed to views of de-commissioned Navy ships comprising the Ghost Fleet, the water tower at Fort Eustis, the Surry nuclear power station, several large, modern houses on the shoreline, barges and other commercial vessels, and recreational boaters and water skiers from Kingsmill Resort.
“The Corps did enough,” concluded Lamberth. “It engaged in reasoned analysis, consulted experts, responded to criticisms of both its methodologies and conclusions, took a hard look at the potential impacts, and concluded that the impact of the Project would be ‘moderate at most.'”