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Bad Buzz: Dominion Substation Plan Upsets Organic Farmers in Varina



One sticky afternoon, four Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market workers pick through organically grown produce at Victory Farms near Varina just a few miles east of downtown Richmond.

There are squash, peppers and purplish indigo rose tomatoes. “We like the color purple,” says Colin Beirne, the store’s marketing manager. The farm at 7001 Osborne Turnpike also supplies restaurants such as Southbound, which Bon Appetit magazine picked as a nominee for its top 10 new eateries in the nation last week.

Victory Farms had been humming along this summer until late July when it got an unwelcome letter from Dominion Virginia Power addressed it as “Dear Neighbor.”

The utility was informing residents that it was planning an electrical substation on a 10-acre site it had contracted to buy immediately across the road from Victory Farms. The project was needed as part of Dominion’s “overall strategy to improve electric reliability,” the letter said.

The missive went like a rocket through bucolic Victory Farms, where rows of scores of fruit and vegetables spread over 6.5 acres in various stages of growth.

“We’re concerned about electromagnetic fields, the effect on wildlife and the decline in property values,” says Gina Collins, the farm’s co-owner.

Putting an industrial piece of machinery close to prospering organic farm just as the region’s restaurant scene is getting national attention seems out of place, says Elise Canup, the farm manager. She’s especially concerned that electric-magnetic waves from the substation will harm bees kept at the farm to pollinate peppers, eggplants and other produce.

What’s more, Dominion’s letter-in-the-mailbox approach seems eerily familiar considering other controversies involving the utility.

About a year ago, resident of Nelson and Augusta counties were stunned to find letters from Dominion demanding access to their property. It wants to survey a route for a $5 billion pipeline that would take natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina through Virginia.

At a July 29 meeting organized by Dominion at Antioch Baptist Church in Varina, the utility got an earful. “We now are considering other locations,” says Dominion spokesman Dan Genest as he stands near a similar substation he asked Style Weekly to visit in Goochland County.

The substation is similar to one Dominion hopes to build in eastern Henrico County near Varina. It takes electricity from lines carrying 230,000 volts and transforms it to 34,500 volts so it can be taken to customers such as homes and businesses.

Genest says Dominion puts in new substations when ones nearby approach full capacity or new consumers are coming. “The only substation in Varina is five or six miles from the airport and it is at 85 percent capacity,” he says.

Thus, he adds, Dominion needs to have the means to power new subdivisions planned nearby, including the 2,770-house Tree Hill and 3,209-house Wilton on the James projects. Both projects had been stalled by the 2008 economic recession but may now be proceeding.

A second Varina substation also would help east Richmond with having reliable power that might be used by the new Stone Brewery going up near Rocketts Landing. Critics claim that the substation might serve the new $2 billion Shandong-Tranlin pulp mill proposed across the James River in Chesterfield County, but Genest says that’s not economically feasible.

In Goochland County, the substation emits a low, steady hum that is overshadowed by traffic on Interstate 64. Genest says that various studies have failed to show a conclusive human impact by electro-magnetic fields. He adds, however, that small animals like snakes or squirrels often die if they stray beyond large fences and get too close to equipment.

For the project to proceed, Genest says Dominion must go the Henrico Board of Zoning Appeals to see if it conforms to the county’s comprehensive plan and then go to Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors for a conditional use permit.

Victory Farms vows a battle. It has already contacted members of a local network of organic food growers and producers for help. S

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