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Wind developer responds to DEQ report  

http://therecorderonline.com

By Anne Adams “¢ Staff Writer

RICHMOND – Highland residents are beginning to get a glimpse of the kind of testimony they’ll hear at the end of October about Highland New Wind Development’s utility project.

The company has most recently submitted arguments supporting its plans for a 39-megawatt facility in Highland County in response to a finalized report from Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. It is yet another step in the process required to gain a siting certificate from the State Corporation Commission for what could be Virginia’s first wind generation plant.

The limited liability company argues, among other things, that its project should be approved because its clean “green” electricity offsets power generated by traditional, polluting fossil fuel plants – a point debated by those who disagree with that position.

“The vast majority of electricity produced in Virginia or used by Virginians is generated from fossil fuel generating plants,” HNWD says. “Fossil fuel plants contribute to air pollution; wind farms do not. Fossil fuel plants are associated with global warming; wind farms are not. Fossil fuel plants produce solid and liquid waste products; wind plants do not. Fossil fuel plants contribute to acid rain that can harm wildlife and humans; wind farms do not. The mining and delivery of coal to fuel a fossil fuel plant adversely impacts the environment with mountain top removal and oil and gas usage for mining operations; wind to fuel a wind farm does not adversely impact the environment.

“Despite these health and societal impacts, Virginia accepts and adapts to fossil fuel generating plants to obtain the benefits of electricity. Wind farms create these same benefits from electricity without imposing a significant threat to wildlife or people and on balance favorably impact wildlife and people by avoiding environmental impacts of fossil fuel generation.”

DEQ’s report contained several suggestions based on information gathered by it and other state and federal agencies related to wildlife. In particular, the state is concerned that HNWD’s data on threatened species and viewshed have not, to date, sufficiently addressed potential negative impacts. Some state agencies have called for better, longer study, particularly before such a utility is constructed in one of Virginia’s most sensitive natural areas.

HNWD, however, says it has provided enough information, and that it, and the wind industry in general, “are working to minimize the comparatively minor impact of wind turbines on wildlife generally, and bats in particular.”

The developer says several of the state agencies that have reviewed HNWD’s application for a state permit “are zealously representing the “˜species,’ and in particular, bats. Human beings, however, are a significant part of the environment and their well-being should be protected as well.”

HNWD says the project’s environmental benefits “far exceed the potential environmental costs associated with the minimal risk to the bat population or the viewshed concerns of a relatively few individuals” and that the SCC “should reject any overzealous condition intended to eliminate all impacts of the project, which is not the statutory standard.”

HNWD points to a recent presidential address, the 2006 Virginia Energy Plan legislation, and what it calls “overwhelming public interest” in renewable energy sources to make its argument that wind power is good for the state and country.

“This first-of-its-kind wind farm in Virginia should be approved and the conditions imposed in the (permit) should be reasonable so as not to prevent its realization or chill the development of other renewable energy projects in this commonwealth,” HNWD says. “The commission should examine closely the reasonableness of each recommendation in the DEQ letter. If every concern of every agency or individual staff person within each agency (such as the “˜potential’ that a stream could someday become a “˜scenic river’) is piled on the project and becomes a requirement for each renewable energy project in Virginia, then the Virginia Energy Plan may fail and the commonwealth will not obtain the benefit of an environmentally favorable electric generation project.”

HNWD says it doesn’t mind conducting post-construction studies, but that its utility should not be required “to become an academic laboratory for a myriad of pre-construction studies and exercises that add little to the science of wind farms in Virginia.”

The developer argues further that the SCC does not have to review everything related to environmental impacts because the Highland County Board of Supervisors already did so before granting the company a local conditional use permit.

“That leaves only a subset of issues, primarily environmental avian issues, to be presented to the commission,” HNWD says.

The developer says DEQ’s recommendations are “simply compilations of all comments and suggestions received from other Virginia agencies” and that “DEQ compiles, but seemingly does not edit or reject, these suggestions and recommendations.”

The SCC should be aware the recommendations “are not necessarily endorsed recommendations from DEQ but may simply be suggestions and recommendations by the various agencies reporting to DEQ,” HNWD states. “DEQ more expansively represents the environment and people; its mission is to protect and improve the environment and the well-being of all Virginians. Unfortunately, there is no permit required for improving the environment. The positive attributes of the applicant’s project do not appear in the list of six potentially required permits or the compilation of 14 recommendations from reviewing agencies.”

HNWD says DEQ made two recommendations of its own – one to minimize impact to wetlands and waterways when drilling occurs under three streams at the project site, the other to conduct a “back down” study.

The back down study would provide an objective analysis to support the contention that the wind farm improves air quality, HNWD says. The developer provided one performed by Resource Systems Group, Inc. in 2006; it had been submitted to the SCC by Alden Hathaway and Debra Jacobson.

HNWD claims it “proves conclusively that the project will avoid significant emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide that adversely impact humans and wildlife. These environmental benefits of the project must be exalted in the commission’s consideration of Virginia’s first wind farm and cannot be minimized in a zeal to eliminate potential but unlikely impacts to wildlife.”

Since HNWD submitted this testimony, wind energy critics have reviewed and disagreed with the back down study’s conclusions (see related story in next week’s Recorder).

The recommendations
In response to the recommendations, HNWD outlines its position as follows:
“¢ Submit final site plan to review agencies – Detailed drawings of the three stream crossings were submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers, and HNWD says it will prepare a final site plan showing the exact location of the turbines. However, the company notes, “A final site plan cannot be provided today because the turbine selection process and final siting of such turbines is the last significant step in the development of a wind farm. Wind turbine technology has been evolving rapidly. Once a (state certificate) is issued and a construction schedule can be determined, then turbines will be ordered. The size and type of turbine will determine the final site plan. In no event, however, will any turbines be placed outside of the 217-acre project site.”

“¢ Conduct viewshed analyses – HNWD continues to maintain that “viewshed concerns have been the source of most of the opposition to this project since its inception,” but Highland supervisors already considered the potential impacts. “Viewshed was hotly debated during the permit process. As a result, Highland County imposed viewshed conditions,” HNWD says. “Given the viewshed consideration by Highland County and the statutory limitations on the duplication of review “¦ the commission should not consider further the effect of the project on viewshed.”

HNWD noted the concerns from state agencies – the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries requested a study of the potential impact to the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail; the Department of Historic Resources requested a viewshed analysis to determine where the turbines would be seen, and suggested the claim turbines would not be visible from the parking lot at Camp Allegheny is unsubstantiated; the Department of Conservation and Recreation said HNWD has not addressed scenic and recreational impacts.

In addition, DCR said an analysis of the viewshed from Laurel Fork, a potential Virginia Scenic River, is needed, along with one of the viewshed from U.S. 250, a potential Virginia Scenic Byway.

HNWD said it “concedes that despite all the mitigation measures proffered “¦ the wind turbines will not be invisible. However, the location is “˜as good as it gets’ because the project is in a mountainous remote area with Class V winds in Highland County that has already been visually impacted by a highway and a transmission line.”

HNWD says it does not believe an additional viewshed study is helpful or necessary, citing the cost, remoteness of the location, the lack of structures in the area, and the fact that the site is already visually impacted by U.S. 250 and the transmission line.
“¢ Assess cumulative impacts – HNWD strongly opposes the need for a cumulative impact study that takes into account all the wind utilties proposed for the Appalachian region in several states.

The developer says such a study is “neither feasible nor appropriate” in the context of the project, and the recommendation that HNWD consider wind turbines proposed or planned at 34 facilities within the Allegheny Highlands of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania to include 88 wind turbines operating, 457 permitted and 480 industrial wind turbines proposed or planned “is an overwhelming suggestion completely devoid of any real world practicality or any potential assistance,” the company said.

“Wind farms do not have indirect or cumulative impacts – the air and water are unaffected, and a flying creature that avoids a wind farm located in Highland County may be no more or less likely to avoid a wind generation site up or down the East Coast,” HNWD argues. “Moreover, a requirement for a cumulative impact study concerning the effect of wind turbines on bird and bat populations is difficult, if not impossible, to administer. To complete such a study – if it could ever be completed – would require obtaining permission from all the surrounding property owners of each of the 1,025 sites at the 34 facilities to enter upon their land periodically, setting a reasonable representative sample, and factoring for environmental and other impacts in all jurisdictions in which the individual species appear. Collecting the data, tabulating it and then attempting to draw conclusions from the data would be a daunting, almost endless, task.”

A cumulative bird impact analysis appropriately would only include those turbines that are erected to date, plus those that are proposed for the project,” HNWD said, and based on the risk study already completed by its consultant, the Highland site “would perhaps impact five birds per turbine per year or a total of less than 100 birds per year with respect to collision impacts “¦ These birds would be distributed over perhaps 20-25 species, which means that between four and five birds per species would be impacted. These would likely be the same species or types of species impacted at the Mountaineer, West Virginia; and Buffalo Ridge, Tennessee sites.”

“¢ Develop appropriate sampling methodology – While the DGIF has said the company should have coordinated its studies with their officials, HNWD believes it did.
HNWD outlined the steps it took, beginning with a September 2005 meeting with a number of state representatives that might be involved in reviewing its permit application. Further correspondence with state agencies, says HNWD, shows its attempts to invite comments and suggestions about its site studies.

“¢ Conduct pre-construction survey/studies – The testimonies of its consultants, HNWD says, cover its response to this recommendation. HNWD says it has conducted or is conducting the necessary studies on the risk to wildlife.

“¢ Perform pre-construction habitat assessment for protected species – HNWD says its consultant testimony will cover a response.

“¢ Develop mitigation plan – HNWD argues viewshed and socioeconomic studies have been reviewed by Highland supervisors and should not be within the purview of reviewing agencies of the state.

“¢ Conduct archeological and architectural surveys if necessary – HNWD argues since its proposed utility is not a federally licensed project, there is no review required pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act.

It points out that in 2003 and 2005, HNWD paid DHR’s costs to conduct an archive search to identify historic resources in the vicinity, and says the turbines will not be seen from any of the sites in DHR’s archives – Bridge No. 1019 and the two Jacob Hevener Stores at Hightown – which is “obvious” to those who have visited the area, the company says.

“As a result of distance and local topography, none of these historic resources would be impaired in any way by the project. Paying a consulting firm to confirm what is obvious is a poor use of resources,” HNWD says.

While HNWD says it will make its final site plan available when it’s ready, an expensive viewshed analysis is unnecessary. Further, HNWD says, “because of its status as a small electric generating facility (under 50 megawatts) some of the customary or expected studies should not be required. In the only other small electric generating facility application filed with the commission, the condition imposed on the applicant was to cease all ground disturbing activities immediately if unexpected discoveries of archeological resources occur and then contact the Department of Historic Resources. (HNWD) believes a similar condition “¦ would appropriately address the apparent concerns of DHR.”

“¢ Avoid direct and indirect impacts to wetlands – “No permits are required so long as the applicant complies with DEQ’s requirements for directional drilling, and (HNWD) will comply with those requirements.

“¢ Protect natural resources during construction – The water issues are addressed, HNWD says, and as to habitat, “the construction activity will occur in cow pastures and there has been no identified wildlife or wildlife habitat in the cow pastures that need to be carefully monitored.”

“¢ Protected species – Based on its consultants’ advice, HNWD believes it has complied with this requirement to work with DGIF and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on protected species. “As stated many times in this process, the only real concern is with bats, namely the Indiana Bat and the Virginia Big Eared Bat,” HNWD says. “The applicant is hopeful that there will be further bat information available by the time of the Oct. 30 public hearing that will further support the applicant’s position that wind turbines do not pose a threat to the two endangered species of bats.”

But if there is additional information regarding these endangered bat species, HNWD says it will continue to explore the use of bat deterrent devices that have been proven effective.

“¢ Consider impacts of the project on ecotourism – HNWD says county supervisors already considered tourism when they reviewed the project and the state shouldn’t consider that again.

“¢ Conduct post-construction sampling and monitoring – HNWD says it’s working on protocols for these studies and “intends to refine that protocol after the results from fall bat studies are available both on the project site and other sites in the Appalachian region.”

“¢ Coordinate transportation safety issues – HNWD says it does not anticipate any transportation safety issues but will coordinate with Virginia Department of Transportation when construction starts.

“¢ Avoid stream and wetland impacts – HNWD says it will comply with DEQ requirements to avoid streams and wetlands.

“¢ Obtain a “back down” study – HNWD submitted one.

Environmental impacts, mitigation
HNWD points out DEQ identified its areas of concern: Water quality; subaqueous lands; air quality; solid and hazardous wastes; natural heritage resources; wildlife resources and protected species; erosion and sediment control; storm water; historic structures and architecture; transportation.

“Unlike all other electric generating facilities, the wind project does not create any adverse water or air quality problems,” HNWD states. “In fact “¦ by backing down fossil fuel plants this project improves the environment. Of the nine areas of concern identified by DEQ, the vast majority of time and energy is spent by environmental agencies in this country and within each state on air and water quality issues as compared to the other seven concerns. Given the fact that wind is actually a positive to the air and water quality, the applicant argues that that alone should justify approval.”

HNWD says it believes that of the concerns listed by the state, it is already in compliance with six. In the other areas – natural heritage resources, wildlife resources and protected species and historic structures and architecture – HNWD says it does not anticipate any significant compliance problems, but has some disagreements in terms of how many studies and reviews need to be conducted.

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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