Members of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors are continuing to question the design of Dominion Power’s Cunningham-Dooms 500kV transmission line upgrade in the western part of the county.
Stephanie Harrington, Dominion’s Transmission Projects Communication Manager, presented a brief update on the plan at the board’s regular meeting Wednesday.
Speaking on one of the most contested elements of the proposed plan — building the new towers of shiny galvanized steel — Harrington focused on issues with the material of the existing towers.
“In the 1960s, it was a popular steel option for us to consider COR-TEN, a type of self-rusting steel used on buildings and in others areas,” said Harrington. “Unfortunately, this is over 50 years old and, especially in some of the more mountainous terrain, we’ve seen that the rusting didn’t stop.”
Harrington said Dominion representatives would bring samples of the deteriorating material to the public hearings on Monday. COR-TEN was originally favored because its self-rusting property made it turn brown and blend into the natural terrain.
Supervisor Diantha McKeel said she supported the use of a material other than COR-TEN and said the Virginia Department of Transportation stopped using it in guard rails for the same reasons given by Dominion. Supervisor Ann H. Mallek brought up concerns about the increased visibility of the galvanized steel and questioned the criticisms of COR-TEN.
“One of my constituents was on-site in 1960 when the line was put up. He asked about the lifespan [of the old towers] and was told 25 years, so they’ve already lasted past their expected lifetime,” said Mallek. “I don’t buy it that [COR-TEN towers] can’t be used, because they’ve proven they can.”
Supervisor Norman Dill shared Mallek’s skepticism, questioning the projected lifespan of galvanized steel towers. Harrington said galvanized steel generally lasts 40 to 60 years, depending on topography and environmental conditions.
“When we’ve approached the SCC about rebuilding this entire 500kV loop, altogether about 350 miles, every time we’ve sent them the applications for rebuilding sections, we’ve recommended going to galvanized, and that’s what they’ve ordered us to build,” said Harrington. “I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen here, but that is what has happened.”
Mallek suggested that Dominion’s previous reconstruction project on another part of the line from Lexington to Dooms was not completed as initially advertised, telling Harrington that “there’s great trust issues.”
“When people went to the Henley [Middle School] meeting, they were told ‘There’s no need to comment on shiny versus not-shiny material,’ but then we were told that, since no one made a comment, we were stuck with the shiny material,” said Mallek.
Harrington replied that the Virginia State Corporation Commission, which will have to give the final approval of the plan, will take all feedback from the public into consideration. She added that photographic simulations of the proposed towers will be available before the SCC makes a decision.
“I’d like to have people in our Planning Commission look at the photo simulations. I’d like to get that ability before this is a done deal,” said Supervisor Liz Palmer.
Dominion is working with PJM Interconnection to complete the construction in stages along the transmission line and minimize outages as much as possible
“We are working with PJM to determine when, where and how we can do outages to replace aging infrastructure,” said Harrington. “We have systematically broken this complete grid into individual segments. We are able to utilize the existing corridor, so we don’t need to expand the width [of the right-of-way].”
Harrington said plan approval is anticipated in early 2017. Transmission engineering began in February and will continue through April 2017, and line construction and right-of-way rehabilitation are estimated to conclude in June 2019.
The existing towers range from 72 feet to 149 feet, while the new towers will range from 108 feet to 174 feet. The average change in height is 28 feet, which is needed for modern conductor configurations and is taller than those used in the 1960s.
Harrington said Monday’s public hearings would not be the end of the public feedback process and offered to return for another presentation as soon as the simulations were available. She also asked the board to suggest locations where they were most worried about the visibility of the towers, such as the line’s crossing of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.
The Piedmont Environmental Council issued their own statement about the project Wednesday evening via email, which included before-and-after images from a similar project in Augusta County. They urged concerned citizens to attend the public hearings and voice their concerns.
“This line traverses historic districts and conserved land, and it’s in the viewshed of numerous historic sites and the national park. These resources are of tremendous value to the public,” said Jeff Werner, land-use officer at PEC. “We believe that SCC and Dominion have a responsibility to protect what the community values by mitigating the visual impact of this new line.”
Two public hearings will take place in the county office building’s Lane Auditorium at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Monday.
“The SCC is all-ears as far as listening to the community before they make a decision, and we’re early in the process,” said Harrington.