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SCC hearing examiner rejects Dominion’s towers plan

WHITE STONE—A State Corporation Commission (SCC) hearing examiner released a report this week recommending that Dominion Energy transmission lines across the Rappahannock River at the Robert O. Norris Jr. Memorial Bridge be placed underground rather than on towers, as proposed by the utility.

SCC senior hearing examiner Alexander F. Skirpan Jr. summarized the evidence in the case, which started in 2015, and concluded that “Because of the significant and negative impacts of an overhead line on the viewshed and local economy, I find that an underground alternative best meets the needs identified in this proceeding and will reasonably minimize adverse impact on the scenic assets, historic districts and environment of the area concerned.”

Skirpan’s report now goes to the three-member commission, which regulates Virginia utilities. Comments on his August 21 report must be received within 28 days.

The case began two years ago when White Stone restaurant owner William Barnhardt and Lancaster County won an injunction that stopped Dominion’s construction of the towers and required the company to obtain SCC permission to build the new line, which would consist of 10 towers as high as 180 feet alongside the Norris Bridge. Dominion filed its application to build the towers in February 2016, and the SCC has conducted a series of public hearings, including a six-day proceeding in Richmond in April 2017.

Including Barnhardt, Lancaster County and the citizen activist nonprofit Save the Rappahannock Coalition Inc., Skirpan notes that the SCC received 260 comments or testimony opposing Dominion’s application for the towers, and 42 comments or testimonies in favor of the application.

A copy of the 116 page report, which includes testimony from many local residents, a copy may be found here on this link.

In the detailed report, Skirpan set forth the widely varying cost estimates for placing the lines under the river and recommended that the SCC require Dominion to obtain bids from various companies and cable manufacturers. Skirpan noted that Dominion witnesses testified underwater cables and installation could cost more than $100 million. He also noted that Henry Soleski, a retired 29-year veteran of the cable industry, testified that the same installation could be completed for one-fourth that amount, or less than Dominion’s estimate for its overhead towers.

Skirpan said he was skeptical of both sides’ cost estimates but he concluded that even if the cost of installing cables underground is higher, the expense is justified because of the circumstances.

“While the record in this case does not permit a precise estimate of the added cost of an underground option, as discussed more fully above [in the report], the likely added cost of an underground option is substantial,” stated Skirpan. “However, in this case I find that the Proposed 115 kV Overhead Route will significantly and negatively impact the viewshed, especially the currently uninterrupted views of the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay from the Norris Bridge. Moreover, this viewshed is vital to a local economy dependent on tourism and retirees moving to the area.

“Closely tied to an economy dependent on tourism and retirees moving to the area is the negative impact the added towers and fenders may have on boating,” he said. “In this case, I find that the negative impacts of the Proposed 115 kV Overhead Route outweigh the added cost of an underground option.”

Following Skirpan’s announcement, Dominion Energy issued the following statement: “Our focus is on providing the most reliable electric system at a reasonable cost to our customers in the Northern Neck region. We are reviewing the hearing examiner’s report and will respond next month. However, we remain steadfast that the overhead route is the best option for reliability, cost and minimizing impact and we will make that case before the SCC.”

Meanwhile, Barnhardt’s attorney, Michael York, said: “This is a very significant ruling and we’re looking forward to presenting our comments to the commissioners. There’s no question that this spot on the lower Rappahannock is a unique and beautiful part of the Virginia landscape and we believe we presented a compelling case for placing the line underground. We also believe we demonstrated why this is the rare instance where underground is safer, more reliable and less expensive than overhead towers.”

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