By: Robert Zullo
Elena Schlossberg, executive director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, has been accustomed to an uphill battle in the group’s fight against a proposed Dominion Virginia Power electric transmission line that will primarily serve an Amazon data center expansion in Haymarket.
But Thursday’s announcement that the State Corporation Commission, which regulates utility projects, had approved the 230-kilovolt line and substation, despite major opposition from residents and local officials, and rejected as too-expensive their preferred alternative of burying a 3.2-mile portion of the line underground along Interstate 66, still came as a shock.
“I’m a little bit stunned,” Schlossberg said.”We’re going to be exploring all our options. I’m sure people in the community will be looking at their options. We’re going to be looking to our Board of Supervisors to stand up to the State Corporation Commission, to Amazon and Dominion.”
The commission also rejected the suggestion from its own staff and critics of the project that the web giant should have to pay for a portion of the line being built to service its data center, a large assembly of computer servers used for storage and processing of data.
“The SCC found that the project is necessary for (Dominion) to comply with mandatory reliability standards. In addition, while a single customer is driving the current need for the line, the commission further stated that the project will permit (Dominion) to maintain reliable electric service to its other customers and support overall growth in the area,” the commission said in a statement.
In November, an SCC hearing officer also dismissed the idea that Amazon should have to help pay for the transmission system, a concept SCC staff and others suggested was no different than a utility customer who builds a house in a remote location without existing electric infrastructure and has to pay a portion of the cost to service the property under Dominion’s line-extension policy.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. The company has shied away from publicly acknowledging the data center, though the developer, Vadata Inc., is a subsidiary of Amazon and company officials have been involved in meetings on the project, Schlossberg said. Two state delegates and two state senators from Northern Virginia also outed the company in a letter to the State Corporation Commission in December after the hearing officer’s report.
“Amazon wants no accountability to the public and Dominion wants the public, not Amazon’s stockholders to pay for Amazon’s business decisions,” says the letter, signed by Dels. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William and John J. Bell, D-Loudoun, and Sens. Richard H. Stuart, R-Stafford, and Richard H. Black, R-Loudoun.
Charles Penn, a Dominion spokesman, said the company “does not discuss our customers.”
“Our role is very, very simple” he said. “We have an obligation to serve a customer base. When a need is determined, we’re obligated to make sure we fulfill that need via the appropriate infrastructure.”
Though the transmission project will indeed meet the immediate needs of a single customer, it will also reduce the risk of outages, shorten distribution circuits and meet growing demand in the area, said Greg Mathe, a spokesman in Dominion’s electrical transmission department.
“On day one it’s going to benefit the broader community in western Prince William County,” Mathe said.
In an interim order approving the line and substation, the commission said two proposed routes for the project, estimated by Dominion to run about five miles between Gainesville and Haymarket and cost between $55 million and $62 million, meet the statutory criteria for approval, though the commission preferred a route that runs along a Norfolk-Southern railroad, the so-called “railroad route.”
“The railroad route is the only route that impacts zero residences within 200 feet of the centerline,” the commission said in a statement. “Moreover, the heavily wooded area along this route will provide screening, aiding to minimize remaining visual impacts of the line.”
The other route, along Carver Road, while less desirable because of some residential impacts, “crosses no permanently protected open space or other conservation easements” and “contains no architectural resources within the right-of-way,” the commission said. It would become the fall-back option if the county and Dominion cannot reach an agreement on the railroad route.
The commission’s order gives Dominion 60 days to seek permission from the county authorizing construction of the route or provide notice to the commission that construction remains blocked.
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors approved the conveyance of property from a homeowner’s association to the county that makes the railroad route “unable to be built without agreement by the county,” the SCC order says. “The county has indicated to the company that it will not permit an overhead transmission line to be constructed across its open-space easement property interest as would be required for this routing alternative.”
Will Reisinger, an attorney who represents the Coalition to Protect Prince William County and a former assistant Virginia attorney general who worked on utility issues, called the decision “unusual.”
“It is certainly a curious decision because the commission is putting the burden back on the county to determine the appropriate route of the line and typically that’s what the commission decides,” he said.
The county’s communications office did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
But in December, Prince William Deputy County Executive Christopher M. Price wrote that the the Carver Road alignment “has significant negative impacts to the community and is inconsistent with the County’s Comprehensive Plan.” And, Price said, the Carver Road plan “directly impacts battlefield landscapes and indirectly impacts battlefield viewsheds of four Civil War battlefields and the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Historic Area.”
Corey Stewart, a GOP gubernatorial candidate and chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, fumed at the SCC decision.
“We’re just disgusted with the SCC and with Dominion. The SCC is the lap dog for Dominion Virginia Power,” said Stewart, who blasted the utility as a “bad corporate citizen” that practices “corporate thuggery.”
The SCC order is an attempt to strong-arm the county into dropping its conservation easement designed to protect a pair of residential communities along the railroad route or have the line and its associated 112-foot tall towers go through a more dense residential area, he added.
The county’s position, he added, is that the “hybrid” Interstate 66 route, which involves burying the line, is the only acceptable path.
“They’ve pretty much asked us to choose our poison essentially. And we’re not going to do it. We’re going to stand up to them,” Stewart said, adding that the county stands ready to deny a special-use permit for the substation that will be part of the transmission project, intended to power an expansion of the existing data center.
Penn, the Dominion spokesman, said the company “cannot express enough” its respect for residents affected by the project.
“It’s very, very difficult to site a transmission power line project,” he said. “It’s very difficult to find a route that would make everybody happy. We did our very best to find routes that were least impactful.”
Jeanine Lawson, a member of the board of supervisors whose district will crossed by the line, said she doesn’t intend to change her mind.
“I, like Chairman Stewart, don’t plan to change my position and suddenly allow them to run their lines through a conservation easement,” she said. “The community certainly is very motivated, as I am, to fight the Carver route. … This fight is long from over.”