The Overshadowing of an American Place

By Dr. Lauret Savoy

Jamestown was established in 1607 along the James River in coastal Virginia as the first permanent English settlement in North America. It was the place of convergences between colonists, tribal peoples who had long claimed the area as homeland, and, soon, enslaved Africans brought to cultivate tobacco for this outpost of the English economy. Nearly every American student learns about this historically complex and economically important site.

However, historic Jamestown soon may be overshadowed by an energy company’s towering electric transmission lines across the James River, where Captain John Smith and his compatriots sailed when they explored Chesapeake waters 400 years ago. The company, Dominion Virginia Power, and its parent corporation, Dominion Resources (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominion_Resources), would be well-advised to seek an alternate approach.

Instead, Dominion seeks permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a new 44-tower long transmission line, with 17 towers reaching as high as 300 feet built into and across the river. The proposed route would slice through the historic setting of more than one national park, risk the recovery of endangered Atlantic sturgeon, and undermine the local travel and tourism economy, which depends upon a preserved and protected Jamestown and James River.

In the more than 400 years since Jamestown’s founding, the 50-mile stretch along the James River that includes Jamestown has retained most of its historic character. Today visitors can experience a landscape that evokes the times of the Powhatan people and Captain Smith’s arrival. This project would forever change and degrade this unique, meaningful, evocative place.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency that promotes “environmental sustainability as a guiding principle (http://www.usace.army.mil/About.aspx),” may approve Dominion’s disastrous plan without much more than a glance at the harmful results of such a decision. That the agency scheduled the only public meeting on this matter for the Friday night of Halloween weekend suggests a lack of serious interest in hearing from the concerned public.

However, for the sake of this nation’s history, I hope that is not the case.

As with all permit requests the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers receives, agency leaders have the ability to require a detailed review of potential consequences of the proposed project to clean water, wildlife, historic sites, and other resources (called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS) to inform the agency’s ultimate decision to approve or deny an application. An EIS also can assess reasonable alternatives to the proposed project.

In this case, an EIS would be a prudent requirement for several reasons. First, Jamestown and the surrounding national park areas provide irreplaceable natural, historical, educational, and cultural experiences, and protect the actual places where history happened. Telling inspiring as well as painful stories from our common history helps us understand who we are as Americans, and can help inform our future. Second, new construction of transmission lines in the James River would threaten the fragile recovery of endangered Atlantic sturgeon. Third, local businesses in the region rely on the integrity of historically significant areas to drive travel and tourism spending in the region. Finally, there are clear alternatives for Dominion, including routing the lines underwater or running lines on existing transmission line routes nearby. Unfortunately, Dominion is insisting on the route that elevates their corporate profits over America’s heritage, natural resources, and regional tourism.

To allow Dominion to build this harmful project in this location at all, much less without having vigorously weighed alternatives nor closely examined the environmental, historical, cultural, and economic values at risk, would be a failure of the public’s trust that our representatives at all levels of government ultimately will stand up for unique places like Jamestown that define our American history.

Jamestown and the American experiences that it tells must remain protected for future generations. Dominion has other options for how it meets the region’s energy needs. There is only one Jamestown.

Dr. Lauret Savoy is an author, teacher, and earth historian. She teaches environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and serves on the board of trustees of the National Parks Conservation Association. http://www.lauretsavoy.com/ and https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/facultyprofiles/lauret_savoy