By Eric Eyre
The battle over wind energy continues to divide West Virginia’s environmental community.
Last week, the state’s Sierra Club chapter endorsed a Chicago-based developer’s plans to build 124 electricity-generating wind turbines along mountain ridges in Greenbrier County. The move caught project opponents – many of whom call themselves environmentalists – by surprise.
In May, a citizens group that opposes mountaintop-removal mining threw its support behind the $300 million Beech Ridge Energy wind project, sparking testy exchange with Greenbrier homeowners and environmentalists.
– advertisement –
For years, West Virginia’s environmentalists have been united in their battles with the coal industry. But they have become increasingly divided over whether the state should sacrifice its scenic mountain views and open its doors to wind energy developers.
“Obviously, a majority of our members consider themselves environmentalists,” said Dave Burhman, who leads a Beech Ridge wind project opposition group called Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy. “But how can you call any industry that kills thousands of bats “˜green’? You’re destroying the habitat up there and doing permanent damage. There’s nothing pro-environment about that.”
Burhman said Sierra Club leaders never spoke to him or other MCRE members before writing a letter to the state Public Service Commission in support of the Beech Ridge project.
The Sierra Club, which has more than 2,000 members in West Virginia, says wind energy has fewer environmental impacts than coal and nuclear power. The group believes wind power will someday provide America’s energy needs at competitive prices.
Paul Wilson, chairman of the Sierra Club’s state chapter, acknowledged that wind turbines sometimes spoil mountain views. But the Greenbrier wind project’s positives outweigh the negatives, he said.
The Sierra Club’s executive committee carefully reviewed all information about the project before voting unanimously to support it, Wilson said.
“To some, yes, it’s going to be an eyesore,” Wilson said. “But they don’t produce more pollution. They don’t cause global warming. They don’t dump sulfur dioxide into the air.
“It would be nice to get some of these old coal-fired plants off line and replace them with green energy.”
The West Virginia Public Service Commission is expected to decide by Aug. 28 whether to allow Beech Ridge, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, to build the project.
The Greenbrier wind farm has drawn support from West Virginia groups that normally don’t see eye to eye.
“What is significant about the Sierra Club’s letter is now you have a project that has the support of labor, industry and two well-respected environmental groups,” said Dave Groberg, Beech Ridge’s project director. “It shows you have to be for something. We don’t see how you could oppose wind power when it’s properly sited.”
The Sierra Club’s endorsement of the Beech Ridge project didn’t come without stipulations.
The organization wants the PSC to require Beech Ridge to complete surveys of possible threatened and endangered species in the area. The PSC should ban construction if such species are found, the group said in its letter to the state agency.
The Sierra Club also requested that Beech Ridge conduct a three-year study after the 186-megawatt project is built to determine whether the huge turbines kill bats and birds.
The environmental group urged the PSC to require Beech Ridge to post a bond to cover the costs incurred by the agency to enforce the suggested stipulations.
“At some point we have to tell these companies under what conditions we want the businesses to operate in West Virginia,” Wilson said. “The idea that we’re going to oppose everything to keep everybody happy is ridiculous.”
Burhman said Beech Ridge should study the project’s impact on birds and wildlife three years before starting construction, as recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Burhman’s group supports the concept of wind energy, but not an “industrial” wind project across Greenbrier County’s scenic mountaintops.
He said federal and state governments should promote energy conservation instead of subsidizing wind energy projects. West Virginia already exports 70 percent of the energy it produces.
“We need to protect the energy we’re using now before we create more sources of it,” Burhman said. “It’s a question of how important and how urgent is this sacrifice of our mountaintops.”
To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-4869.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding