County officials are working with Virginia Power to determine how much water the utility will be allowed to draw for its planned new plant in southern Fauquier--and how its water use will affect its neighbors.

The discussions, involving a 6 million gallon water storage tank at the plant, represent the latest, and possibly the last, major hurdle Virginia Power faces before it can begin construction of its four-turbine plant near Remington.

Protests by residents and environmental groups against the $200 million plant, which received a special exception permit in October from the Board of Supervisors, have been mounting. So far, however, Virginia Power has passed all its political and regulatory tests and last month secured an air pollution permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Still, "it's not [over] from a local standpoint," said county Administrator G. Robert Lee. "People can write everybody in the world, but in terms of the law, [county] staff is now assigned responsibility" for the water question, which must be resolved before a building permit can be issued. The key remaining question is how much water the plant will suck from the earth around Remington.

The county's Community Development Department is awaiting a private contractor's analysis provided by Virginia Power in April, based on data collected in March from test wells at the plant site and on surrounding property. In its report, the utility said it intended to store 6 million gallons of water in a tank that would be filled over about 18 days from a 400-foot well.

That water would be used when natural gas was not available to fuel the plant. Then, a mixture of oil and stored water would be burned--although Virginia Power officials have said that is only a contingency plan and would be used rarely.

Virginia Power's water report said that while the tank was filling, local wells probably would drop temporarily. But it said that "these drawdowns are not anticipated to result in diminution of the local water supply."

That is little consolation to Richard Dorkey, a Bealeton cattle farmer who has become the face of public opposition to the plant.

Dorkey, whose property abuts the northeast edge of the plant site, said that during the March tests by the contractor working for Virginia Power, his wells and the wells of a tenant were affected.

"He [the tenant] had air coming out of his lines," Dorkey said. "And I consider a four-foot drop in my well to be an adverse impact."

That is significant because, by the language of the special exception permit, the county could make special demands of Virginia Power if such an impact was demonstrated--including requiring the company to drill new wells for affected residents and limiting the amount of water drawn.

Until the effect--and the remedies--have been determined through the county's review, community development officials have not approved a site plan for the plant. A site plan is required before a building permit can be issued, Lee said.

Meanwhile, according to Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, "there is nothing yet that says Virginia Power can't take 2 million gallons of water a day."

Jim Norville, a Virginia Power spokesman, said the utility is still in discussions with the county about how much water could be drawn in a day.

Critics of the plant say the fact that such important questions are being considered at the eleventh hour and without input from local elected officials highlights the flaws in the approval process.

Virginia Power first submitted plans for the plant in September and obtained a special exception permit in October. Virginia Power's permit was approved quickly, aided by an unusual joint meeting of the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors on Oct. 6, and several specifics now being hashed out were not addressed at the time in writing.

Supervisors said then that they moved quickly because they were afraid of losing the tax money from the new plant to Caroline County, where the utility said it also was considering building a plant. Virginia Power officials say they are proceeding with plans for plants for both sites.

For the Remington plant, Virginia Power won a major victory last month when the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, ignoring appeals from the Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Committee and the National Park Service, declined to extend a public comment period and issued an air pollution permit. That permit allows Virginia Power to emit as much as 249 tons of nitrogen oxides, components in smog, into the air each year.

The Environmental Protection Agency sent a testy letter to the state over its handling of the permitting but declined to intervene.

That has left few avenues for opponents of the plant, but Lee said county staff members have been receiving letters and calls from residents and environmental groups hoping to influence what few decisions remain.

Supervisor David C. Mangum (R-Lee), whose district includes the plant site, said a concerted "good ol' boys' network" of wealthy environmentalists is seeking state and federal intervention to scuttle the development.

The Piedmont Environmental Council has appealed decisions by the State Corporation Commission allowing construction of the plant to proceed and is considering a challenge to the state air pollution permit. A hydrologist hired by the council has also questioned some of the assumptions of the Virginia Power water tests.

At a board meeting last week, dozens of opponents asked supervisors to reopen the special exception process.

But if environmental groups and residents still think they have a chance of stopping the 600 megawatt plant, which Virginia Power says will be used during hours of high electricity demand, the Board of Supervisors has not given them much hope.

In voting last week on a $3.5 million package for three new sports field complexes, board members said they were projecting that the debt service for the new developments would be paid for with tax revenue anticipated from the power plant.