Studies: Dominion facility to bring benefits, drawbacks
By Joe Beck -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Shenandoah National Park's streams will be cleaner but its views sometimes diminished by operations at the planned Dominion Virginia Power plant, according to several studies projecting the plant's effects on the park.
Park officials describe the gas-fired power plant as a net environmental asset, thanks to agreements between federal officials and representatives of Dominion Power. Those agreements include the closing of an aging coal-fired power plant in West Virginia and reduction or elimination of emissions at other company facilities in the region.
The plant, planned for a site about three miles north of Front Royal, cleared its last regulatory hurdle before construction can begin when the State Corporation Commission approved the project Feb. 2.
In lowering emissions at other Dominion Power facilities, chemicals producing acid rain that fall in the park will also decrease. That means less harm to aquatic life in water that would otherwise grow too acidic, according to scientific models of the park's streams.
But other models predict a downside for the park when the power plant begins operating in about three years.
Park officials expect the plant's emissions to create a plume that will blow toward the park and leave a noticeable haze under certain environmental conditions.
"Based on modeling, it would not happen that often but when it did, some of the impacts would be severe," said Jim Schaberl, chief of natural and cultural resources at the park. "There are some days when visitors in the northern district of the park would be impacted quite a bit by the plume."
The models used to estimate the plume's effect on visibility were produced by a contractor hired by Dominion Power and National Park Service staff, Schaberl said.
The model determined the number of days over a five-year period during which visibility would be reduced at several park locations. Only five places, all in the northern part of the park, were found to have their views reduced for periods of one hour or two consecutive hours a day.
The five locations were found to have diminished visibility on a total of 65 days over the five-year period.
For example, Signal Knob Overlook registered the highest number of days with diminished visibility at 26. Dickey Ridge was next with 14; Compton Gap Road had 14; Lands Run Road Gate would be affected on eight days and Shenandoah Valley Overlook on three.
The central and southern portions of the park would be unaffected by the plume, according to the data.
The model may underestimate the effect of the haze on visitors' ability to enjoy park views, Schaberl said. The data only show the effects of the plume on visibility inside the park itself, not lands outside. Schaberl said that means the data does not show the plume's effects on the spectacular views looking west out of the park across the Shenandoah Valley.
Schaberl said a weakness in the Clean Air Act's implementation, which requires study of the power plant's effects on park views, limits the data to impacts on federal land.
"Despite the fact that we can see to West Virginia on clear days, we can't talk about that distance being obscured," Schaberl said. "We can only talk about the plume affecting visibility over the park."
Dan Genest, a spokesman for Dominion Power, acknowledged that visibility may not be what people are expecting on a handful of days, but improved water quality will more than offset whatever haze is noticed.
"In the final analysis, the arrangement we worked out will have a net environmental benefit, Genest said, referring to actions taken to reduce emissions elsewhere among Dominion Power facilities. "The park is better off with the power plant and us making the changes we agreed to."