On second thought, court won’t overturn Jamestown transmission line permit

Dominion Energy transmission lines span the James River near Surry, Va., seen from the Hog Island Wildlife Management Area, June 18, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

A hotly opposed transmission line built by Dominion Energy across a historic stretch of the James River won’t be demolished after a federal judge charged with revisiting the project’s permit decided not to overturn it.

“Since its installation, the project has become a crucial source of electricity in the area,” wrote Judge Royce Lamberth of the D.C. District Court in an opinion handed down Friday. As a result, he found, overturning the permit and requiring that the 17-tower line be torn down would have “very serious” and “disruptive” consequences for the approximately 600,000 northern Hampton Roads customers who rely on that power.

Environmental and historic preservation groups reacted to the decision with dismay. Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, one of the parties that has fought the Jamestown line since its inception, called Lamberth’s ruling “extremely disappointing.”

“This ruling endangers national parks, the James River ecosystem and viewshed, and some of America’s earliest memories at historic Jamestown,” she said in a news release. “It also sets a dangerous precedent for companies seeking an end-run around our bedrock environmental protection laws.”

Dominion did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the decision. Dominion spokespeople have previously said that the company has a policy of not speaking with the Virginia Mercury.

Throughout his 19-page opinion, Lamberth acknowledged a higher court’s finding that the Army Corps had erred in not conducting an environmental impact statement for the project in line with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, instead opting for a far less rigorous environmental assessment.

But “despite the deficiencies in the Corps’ actions, the severe consequences of vacating the permit warrant a deviation” from that course, he wrote.

The decision came as a blow to environmental groups, which in recent months had won significant victories in the case.

In March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia — itself reversing an earlier ruling by Lamberth — overturned the project’s permit and ordered the Corps to prepare a full environmental impact statement. In May, the appeals court refused a petition from Dominion and the Corps to reconsider its ruling but also took a step back from its earlier position, returning the question of whether the permit should be vacated to the D.C. District Court.

As the case remained tied up in the courts, the Corps began its belated environmental impact review amid confusion over how strongly the existence of the line should influence its assessment of the alternatives.

In his Friday ruling, Lamberth pointed out that even though his court was not ordering that the line be torn down, the Army Corps could “decide to select an alternative energy source and remove the project anyway” — although, he noted, such a removal would come with a $46 million price tag.

Patrick Bloodgood, a spokesperson for the Corps’ Norfolk District, told the Mercury that the district “continues to work through the EIS process to make sure we use the best possible science and engineering available to us today to render a decision, which balances the needs of the environment and historical resources with the needs of the community.”

This story has been updated to add comments from the Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District.