Virginia’s James River: A Decisive Win for Historic Preservation
In a unanimous opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected Dominion Energy’s permit for the James River transmission line.
The James River flows through a collection of nationally recognized cultural, historic, and natural resources located in Virginia’s Historic Triangle—a region which receives over 3.5 million visitors annually. In 2013, Dominion Energy requested a permit to construct a transmission line across the James River from Surry to Skiffes Creek that would permanently harm the integrity of this cultural landscape.
After a six-year campaign to fight for this National Treasure, the National Trust and our partners received a decisive historic preservation win: The U.S. Court of Appeals rejected Dominion Energy’s permit for the James River transmission line. The Army Corps of Engineers is now required to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to review the transmission line’s impacts on cultural and natural resources.
We sat down with Sharee Williamson, associate general counsel for the National for Historic Preservation and project manager for the James River National Treasure, to explain the impact of this victory.
What was the timeline for the James River? In what ways did the National Trust intervene?
In spring 2015, we ran the Down to the Wire campaign, through which more than 27,000 advocates in Virginia and around the United States signed a petition asking Dominion Energy to find alternative solutions that would meet the region’s power needs while protecting the invaluable historic sites along the James River.
Starting in 2013, the Corps reviewed the permit request from Dominion Energy to build transmission lines on the James River. The permit process required the Corps to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Compliance with NEPA requires the Army Corps to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). An EIS is required under NEPA for projects that cause a significant impact on the human environment, including impacts to historic resources. It is intended to ensure that federal agencies take a close look at alternatives when projects could have negative impacts.
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The National Trust, the National Park Service, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and other advocacy organizations and individuals submitted more than 50,000 comments during the permit review period, requesting that the Army Corps of Engineers prepare an EIS. Despite the public outcry and the requirements of NEPA, the Corps granted the permit to Dominion in July 2017 without an EIS. Dominion immediately began constructing the transmission line once the permit was issued.
In response, the National Trust and Preservation Virginia filed a lawsuit against the Corps arguing that issuing the permit without an EIS violated NEPA. We received a negative court decision from the lower court in May 2018, stating that the Corps had satisfied its obligations under NEPA and NHPA.
We appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and oral arguments were heard in December 2018. Construction was ongoing throughout the litigation. According to Dominion Energy, the project was completed and the transmission line was energized on February 26, 2019. But on March 1, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals issued its decision vacating the project’s permit.
What does this decision mean for the James River?
To reach this decision, the court found that the project met the legal definition of “highly controversial,” meaning that legitimate disputes about the scale of the project’s impacts should be resolved by preparing an EIS that carefully looks at alternatives. The court also reemphasized that the unique characteristics of the James River and the existence of historic resources are important factors in determining whether an EIS is required.
What’s next for the James River?
The Army Corps of Engineers will have to restart the permit review process for Dominion Energy, this time by preparing an EIS. The process will include opportunities for the public to participate in the review, and the Army Corps of Engineers will have to consider a full range of alternatives for the James River, as the law originally required.
The National Trust intends to push Dominion Energy to deconstruct the towers and find an alternative solution that protects the historic landscape and resources along the James River. Carter’s Grove National Historic Landmark, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, Colonial National Historical Park (which comprises Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown), and many other historic resources along the James River deserve to be protected for future generations. Today’s decision opens a path forward for this National Treasure.