A dispute over a proposed power line route in Virginia that threatens a historic African American enclave has morphed into a broader battle between the state’s politically influential electric company and its most controversial Republican politician.
Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart, who is running for the U.S. Senate, is calling Dominion Energy “a corporate bully” for its plans to build a six-mile-long transmission line through a small community in Haymarket that was founded by freed slaves.
Dominion, already battered by recent opposition to several pipeline and coal-ash pond projects, has swung right back at Stewart, accusing the recent gubernatorial candidate of misrepresenting his own role in setting the power line route.
“Why is Corey Stewart putting politics over people?” reads a Dominion advertisement in several Prince William County newspapers that highlights Stewart’s role in blocking an alternative power line route. “The residents of Carver Road should look no further than Corey Stewart for the reason their community was selected.”
An opinion piece by Dominion executive Robert M. Blue published in The Washington Post says Stewart is jeopardizing reliable electric service for the people he was elected to serve. Blue oversees Dominion operations in Virginia and North Carolina.
Stewart — who says his bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D) will be partially based on challenging corporate interests like Dominion — is citing the attacks in his fundraising appeals.
“If I were to choose an enemy, this would be the one I would have chosen,” said Stewart, who nearly upset Ed Gillespie in June’s GOP gubernatorial primary after campaigning on a platform of protecting Confederate monuments and disrupting the political landscape.
“It’s bringing in people and donors who otherwise wouldn’t support a Republican candidate,” Stewart said. “There are a lot of people in Virginia who are victims of Dominion’s heavy-handed tactics.”
Virginia’s State Corporation Commission decided in June to locate Dominion’s new 230,000-volt power lines along Carver Road near Haymarket, where descendants of Livinia Blackburn Johnson have lived for at least 118 years.
Dominion says the lines are needed to serve a data center complex and the growing residential communities around it. (The data center complex is owned by VAData, a subsidiary of Amazon, whose founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos is owner of The Washington Post.)
Residents who oppose the lines question whether that much capacity is needed. Two residents’ groups have appealed the commission’s decision, and the panel is reconsidering.
Dominion originally wanted to place the lines along a nearby freight railroad line, which would have required using 55 acres of wetlands owned by the nearby Somerset Crossing residential development.
Other options — including a “hybrid route” along Interstate 66 that would involve partially burying the power lines — were rejected by the state commission as too expensive or too intrusive to surrounding communities.
With the 528-home Somerset Crossing community opposing the railroad route, Stewart engineered a land agreement that enabled the county to acquire the wetlands property as protected open space. That meant Dominion could not seize it through eminent domain.
Dominion petitioned the county for use of the land, warning Stewart and other county officials behind closed doors that the historic Carver Road route was the only other viable option. Stewart later called the conversation “an attempt at blackmail.”
When he and the other supervisors voted unanimously not to make the wetlands available, the state commission said Dominion would have to build through Carver Road. Amid an outcry from residents, Stewart made a renewed push for the more expensive, hybrid I-66 route.
He is casting the dispute as a battle to preserve an important reminder of the progress made by African Americans in Virginia since slavery — a cause he said is consistent with his focus on protecting local community interests and not at odds with his recent push to protect Confederate monuments.
“Dominion had no idea what it was in for when it picked a fight with the Carver Road community,” Stewart said during a rally before the county board unanimously agreed to donate $30,000 toward the residents’ legal efforts last month.
The African American homeowners on Carver Road say they’re grateful for the attention Stewart has brought to their cause.
“The fact is, Dominion is responsible for choosing the Carver Road route as an option, so for them to place blame on others is unfair,” said Joyce Hudson, who heads the recently formed Alliance to Save Carver Road. “Corey, the county and the coalition are all together in the goal of having these transmission lines not affect our community.”
Political analysts say the fight reflects a growing willingness among some Virginia politicians to distance themselves from Dominion after years of quietly resenting the company’s considerable influence in Richmond.
Dominion has long cushioned itself against outward political attacks by playing both sides of the aisle — splitting about $15 million in donations between Republicans and Democrats during the past two decades. It has never donated directly to any of Stewart’s campaigns, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
But dozens of Democratic candidates for state office pledged not to accept donations from Dominion this election cycle, in response to controversies over a proposed pipeline that would run 600 miles through the state and smaller battles over efforts to bury coal ash at Dominion power plants near sensitive waterways.
Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, recalled similar tensions in the 1970s, when Lt. Gov. Henry Howell (D) scored political points by characterizing what was then VEPCO as the “Very Expensive Power Company.” His taunts prompted the company to focus more on keeping rates low.
“Dominion Energy is facing more political trouble right now than it has in 40 years,” Farnsworth said. “For decades, Democrats and Republicans have quite happily and quite quietly taken money from this power company with few questions asked. To me, this is another example of how contentious politics are getting in Virginia.”
Chet Wade, a Dominion spokesman, declined to comment on the company’s newly aggressive posture toward Stewart. Wade played down the other controversies as the price of doing business in a changing industry and political climate.
“That’s just the world we’re in right now,” Wade said. “We’re going to keep working to make sure that the lights are on and the generation of energy is cleaner, and more reliable.”