JAMESTOWN, Va. — Every American knows this place. It was the first permanent English settlement in the 1600s, the origin of Thanksgiving, the place that laid the foundation for the birth of a nation.
But Jameson Brunkow didn’t race his skiff to a spot on the James River to recount that history. He wanted to talk about something few people know, at a point between a nuclear power plant in Surry County and the marshy shore of James City County. “This is the place,” said Brunkow, who works as a “riverkeeper” for a nonprofit group that monitors the lower James for pollution and other environmental violations.
Under choppy waters was the spawning ground of the Atlantic sturgeon, a large, prehistoric-looking fish credited with saving the early settlers from starvation. So abundant were the fish then that members of native tribes would wade into the river and catch them by hand. By 40 years ago, however, the sturgeon were thought to be wiped out because of decades of overfishing. Today, the fish are struggling to make a comeback as a federally protected endangered species.
Now, Dominion Virginia Power wants to build 17 power transmission towers across the James River. The proposal has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists in the latest in a series of battles between corporations and conservationists over wilderness areas across the country.
Florida Power and Light unsuccessfully tried last year to build transmission lines inside Everglades National Park after fierce opposition. This year, two utilities expect to finish building 145 miles of transmission lines that cut through the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the Middle Delaware National Scenic and Recreational River and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
Bechtel Development is seeking to build the Soda Mountain Solar Project in the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino to provide power to 170,000 California homes. Like Jamestown, a decision on that project is in the final stage.
All of the projects generated strong opposition.
Dominion officials say they need to build the towers because new federal emissions restrictions are forcing the closure of two dirty, coal-burning power plants in Yorktown. They say the towers are the only way to provide electricity to north Hampton Roads without risking rolling blackouts when energy use spikes on hot summer days.
Conservationists, such as the National Parks Conservation Association and the Chesapeake Conservancy, say invoking blackouts is a scare tactic. And they argue that sticking towers as tall as 290 feet in the river is a mistake, given that the landscape looks pretty much as it did when Capt. John Smith first saw it in 1607. They say Dominion should consider alternatives.
Michael Caldwell, Northeast regional director of the National Parks Service, agrees. “What is at stake here today is the future of one of our nation’s most historic and iconic landscapes,” said Caldwell, who oversees the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Valley Forge. “This place holds treasures set aside by Congress to tell the stories of these United States. Any denigration of the ability to tell these stories only serves to erode our connection to our past.”
While some Americans believe that the original Thanksgiving feast was shared between settlers and native peoples at Plymouth in 1621, the National Park Service said the original meal was prepared two years earlier in Jamestown to celebrate “the day of our ship’s arrival” and to mark it “yearly and perpetually kept as a day of thanksgiving.”
As the Army Corps of Engineers in Norfolk enters the final phase in deciding whether Dominion’s proposal should move forward, the health status of the river’s struggling sturgeon population is emerging as a big factor.
“The underlying issue is we have remarkable resources surrounding these towers, specifically sturgeon,” Brunkow said. A deep-water channel under his boat “is where we would find the sturgeon . . . in heavy concentration” during an April-to-June spawning rite and a late July-to-October spawning season.
About five miles from the Jamestown marina, male sturgeon chase females, which lay millions of eggs that produce tens of thousands of hatchlings. Only a few of the hatchlings survive — many are eaten by other fish or die in various ways.
Despite a long-standing state fishing ban and endangered-species protection granted by the federal government three years ago, the status of sturgeon in the Chesapeake Bay region remains troubled. Their spawning migrations from the Atlantic Ocean to rivers are blocked by dams; their eggs are gobbled up by voracious blue catfish wrongly introduced to their habitat by humans, and their large, spiny bodies are often sliced open by boat propellers.
About 100 sturgeon were killed by the propellers of industrial ships during construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge across New York’s Hudson River, Brunkow said, and environmentalists are worried that the same could happen when big ships help erect the transmission towers.
Placing 17 transmission towers across a river in water as deep as 30 feet is no small feat. The two-legged skeletal frames must be anchored to the river floor in concrete and forced into the ground by a massive pile driver.
The thumping percussion of the pile driver is likely to disturb not only the sturgeon, but also other anadromous fish that live their early lives in rivers before moving on to the ocean as adults.
“Every sturgeon killed by ship strike or a tower being pounded into the ground in this important area is a step backward in the effort to recover this population,” he said.
Dominion proposed a solution, said Stephenie Harrington, the project’s communications chief. Its crews would work only November to February to avoid the long spawning season. And when the giant pile driver is in operation, Dominion would erect a plastic bubble curtain to blunt the hammering, it said.
“We had a thorough assessment of . . . all the potential impact,” including on the Atlantic sturgeon, said Bonita Harris, another spokeswoman. “We analyzed other cultural and environmental impact — eagle nests, Indian tribal territory, schools and historic sites.”
Harris said that placing the project where Brunkow’s boat rested, called Surry-Skiffes Creek, would have the least impact of about a half-dozen possible locations. The fact that it’s also the least-expensive alternative did not figure strongly in the decision, Dominion said.
“This is not the first transmission line we’ve built in the water and not the first in the James River,” Harrington said, pointing to at least six others.
Dominion was heartened several weeks ago when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that those steps meant the project “was not likely to adversely impact” sturgeon.
But in an interview last week, a spokeswoman for the NOAA Greater Atlantic Region said that the determination was preliminary. The agency is involved in a deeper investigation into whether sturgeon can withstand the impact of transmission towers, said Jennifer Goebel, a spokeswoman.
The Army Corps is “75 percent done with its decision-making process,” said Patrick Bloodgood, a spokesman. But there are still so many variables to consider — including NOAA’s report on sturgeon — that commanders are reluctant to provide even a ballpark estimate for the final decision.