Inside NoVa – Amazon data center, Dominion power line under federal scrutiny

Amazon data center, Dominion power line under federal scrutiny

By:  Alex Koma, akoma@insidenova.com

June 1, 2017

A pair of federal agencies could soon delay the construction of a controversial data center in Haymarket, and the new power line Dominion Energy is building to help support the project.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an agency that advises the White House and Congress on the management of the nation’s historic sites, wrote a May 17 letter pressing the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a more expansive review of the project. The agency is currently studying the environmental impacts of the new facility, which is being constructed on a lot across from the Novant Health UVA Haymarket Medical Center near Interstate 66.

The project – which is backed by VAData, a subsidiary of Amazon – involves three separate buildings. But the Army engineers were originally only set to study issues relating to the construction of two of those facilities, which are about the size of warehouses.

The ACHP is concerned that the one building the corps isn’t overseeing is already “operational,” independent of the other two, raising questions about the company’s intentions. Charlene Vaughn, an assistant director in the ACHP’s Office of Federal Agency Programs, writes that VAData might have “inappropriately segmented” that building from the other two, and she urges the corps to consider any “adverse impact” the facility might present for the nearby Buckland Mills Battlefield.

Vaughn also wants the corps to incorporate the Dominion transmission line that will power the data center into its review. The utility is building a power line from Gainesville to Haymarket, and the AHCP expects the data center to consume “upwards of 97 percent of the power” that infrastructure can provide.

Dominion officials have long argued that the new line will also make service more reliable for its customers in the area, but Vaughn argues that the project is an inextricable part of the data center’s construction and merits evaluation by the corps. As of now, Virginia’s State Corporation Commission has taken the lead on reviewing the proposed power line.

Tom Walker, chief of the corps’ regulatory branch, says he’s been working with the ACHP on these concerns for a while before they actually sent the letter, and he certainly lends them some credence.

In particular, he says the corps will be taking a close look at whether the data center is driving the power line’s construction, as that could prove to be the deciding factor in whether the line earns federal review.

“The preliminary information we’ve gotten is that the line will supply lots of other users,” Walker said. “But it may be this project is what’s driving this construction to happen right now, versus two or three years from now. So if that bears out to be true, we would consider segmenting this out and looking at it.”

Walker is less sure about the ACHP’s claims about the â”segmentation” of one building from the other two. He notes that the lone facility that’s currently up and running, can remain that way “even if buildings 2 and 3 never happen.”

“We’re only looking at parts that don’t have independent utility,” Walker said.

For the most part, Walker says the corps’ review is focused on factors like the project’s potential impact on nearby waterways and endangered species, and the engineers will ultimately issue a permit for the project laying out how the project can proceed to best protect the environment.

But he added that the corps is also focused on some of the impacts to historic sites that the ACHP describes. The nearby “Buckland Historic District” includes buildings from a town founded in 1798, in addition to a historic battlefield, and Walker says the corps will study everything from how debris from the project could impact the area to how the finished buildings might affect views at the site.

“Part of it is looking where the site actually is, and what’s already been built around it,” Walker said. “It’s about looking at a baseline of what the site has experienced so far.”

Walker said the ultimate goal is for the corps to craft a “memorandum of agreement,” sketching out how VAData can mitigate any of the project’s potential impacts on historic sites. He expects that the company, the ACHP, the Virginia Division of Historic Resources and the corps would all have to sign onto the memo to make it official.

He’s also hoping to involve the community in this process, and that’s welcome news for people like Elena Schlossberg, a fierce opponent of the project and the executive director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County. She’s particularly hopeful that the corps will review the power line project as well, as her organization has spent months decrying the construction’s potential impacts on nearby neighborhoods.

“The ACHP’s request to look at this in a more holistic way is exactly what we wanted,” Schlossberg said. “Nobody has paid any attention yet to the impact of this project on the area, and it’s why you don’t do this in places like this.”

A pair of local lawmakers opposed to the project – Del. Bob Marshall, R-13th District, and Sen. Dick Black, R-13th District – are hoping for a similar outcome, and they wrote a letter to state regulators May 17 urging them to defer any final decision on the project until the corps can finish its work.

The SCC issued an “interim order” on the power line project, directing county supervisors to give Dominion permission to build the line along one of two routes.