Point of view: Power line rebuild draws discord

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After Dominion's rebuild in Rockbridge County, this is the view from Kristopher Baumann's front yard. Courtesy of Kristopher Baumann After Dominion's rebuild in Rockbridge County, this is the view from Kristopher Baumann's front yard. Courtesy of Kristopher Baumann

City and county residents heavily criticized Dominion Virginia Power’s plans to rebuild area transmission lines at a recent public hearing, and a Rockbridge County man, who has filed suit against the power company after a similar rebuild in his area, says locals’ concerns are justified.

“They marred one of the most beautiful valleys in the state so they could save themselves a little bit of money,” says Kristopher Baumann, who owns a farm in Rockbridge.

His suit alleges that Dominion lied about the number and type of towers it planned to build and the degree to which new structures would resemble those being replaced. The power company also published false information to the public and did not follow statutorily required procedures, according to the suit.

“Dominion has admitted that it made no attempt to mitigate the appearance of the transmission line as it traverses nearly 40 miles of pastoral landscape through the Shenandoah Valley,” the lawsuit reads. “Although other projects in Virginia have been built with darkened towers at the lowest heights possible, so as to blend more effectively in a rural environment, these towers are enormous and made of a bright galvanized steel that reflects in the sun, making the long line of towers a scar upon the landscape that is visible above the trees, from miles away.”

The materials Dominion is proposing to use to rebuild the area’s Cunningham-Dooms 500kV transmission lines, which run almost 30 miles through Albemarle, is the biggest turnoff for some locals.

At the August 8 State Corporation Commission public hearing, Albemarle County Supervisor Ann Mallek said she has been disappointed by Dominion’s “misrepresentation and incomplete information,” and she asked the commission to reject Dominion’s application for the local rebuild, citing the height, width and, most importantly, she said, the appearance and color of the towers.

“The company rejects the COR-TEN material, which has been used for decades,” Mallek says. COR-TEN provides protection from corrosion through a chemical process that turns steel into a brownish color that blends with the landscape. One of these lines built in 1960 that was supposed to last 25 years has lasted more than 50 without any expensive maintenance treatments, she says. “Therefore, the worry that there is a structural deficit is not supported by facts.”

In a report to the SCC, Dominion has stated there is a $266,000 difference in total installation costs to use darkened poles rather than the silver galvanized poles, says Mallek, and “the additional investment is minute when compared to the damage that the galvanized poles will do to the scenic viewshed of Albemarle.”

Daisy Pridgen, a Dominion spokesperson, says the decision to use different poles is not cost-based, but issue-based. The overall cost of the project is slated at $60 million.

“Significant issues were discovered in the structural joints of all lattice tower structures built with COR-TEN steel,” she says, and Dominion stopped using it several years ago.

When a galvanized steel tower is first erected, Pridgen says, “it can appear somewhat reflective initially, but the exterior finish dulls relatively quickly and fades to a medium gray color,” she adds, “similar to the dulled effect observable over time on highway guardrails.”

In the Cunningham-Dooms 500kV rebuild, each structure of about 160 is being replaced and the height of new towers will be about 28 feet taller on average. The original line, built in the early 1960s, needs to be replaced to current standards to maintain system reliability, Pridgen says. Dominion is now working to provide detailed responses to the August 8 SSC hearing, which will be available in September.

Says Mallek, “We need engineers to find ways to accomplish this rebuild with brown poles to reduce the impact of the line, not accountants telling the SCC that this extra cost is too much.”

In Rockbridge and Augusta counties, Dominion got approval for the rebuild from the SCC “based on false numbers,” Baumann says, “claiming that the tower heights would be far less than they actually are.” At the time, Dominion’s website said the average height would be 115 feet, though towers are as high as 174 feet, his suit claims. Originally, towers ranged in height from 74 feet to 149 feet.

On November 19, 2012, Dominion filed the application to rebuild the existing transmission with both a 500kV line and a new 230kV line, though the previous build included only the former. The SSC approved it, but at the end of the application process, the power company withdrew it and filed another application a year later.

“In addition, when explaining how the 2013 heights would differ from what was approved for 2012,” Baumann says, “Dominion stated to the SCC that the increases in tower height on average would be two to 14 feet, but tells [the Department of Environmental Quality] that 14 feet would be the maximum increase height, neither of which was factually accurate.”

On September 24, 2013, Dominion’s lawyer, Charlotte McAfee, sent an e-mail that urged the DEQ not to review the second application, which she said would involve only “slight modifications” from 2012 plans and that the “modifications do not change the visual characteristics of the structures.”

In 2015, Dominion produced an Excel spreadsheet to the SCC that showed original tower heights, proposed tower heights in the 2012 and 2013 applications, with one increasing as much as 41 feet, Baumann says. Though it was only recently made available to the public, he says it shows that the company was aware of height discrepancies at the time of filing their applications.

Though the project isn’t finished,  the average of the newest constructed towers is 148.5 feet tall, Baumann has concluded from the spreadsheet.

An achievable goal with the lawsuit, he says, is to force Dominion to mitigate the damage it has already done by painting the power lines and towers a darker color. He says he won’t stop fighting the company, which has “deep pockets” and “enormous legislative power.”

They’re going to try to run me into the ground and anybody else who gets in their way,” he says.

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From Kristopher Baumann’s front yard, the top image shows the original, nearly invisible transmission lines. The bottom photo was taken after the rebuild. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of Kristopher Baumann
After Dominion's rebuild in Rockbridge County, this is the view from Kristopher Baumann's front yard. Courtesy of Kristopher Baumann

 

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