Standing outside the home of Bill and Rosina Martz along the Susquehanna River, it’s easy to see Mahantongo Mountain and even easier to imagine how the landscape would change once 33 or more wind turbines are built.
Gamesa Energy of Spain plans to build a 50-megawatt wind farm along the summit of Mahantongo Mountain. Township officials and local residents say the company is looking at a six-mile section of the mountain, starting near Route 147 north of Millersburg and running east to Deibler’s Gap in Mifflin Twp.
That size wind farm would require about 33 turbines, each of which would stand 416 feet above the mountain ridge with a single propeller blade reaching nearly 300 feet from end to end. They would be spaced about 1,000 feet apart.
“We support alternative energy,” said Rosina Martz, whose farm also borders Mahantongo Creek where it enters the Susquehanna. “My daughter lives in Belgium. They have a lot of windmills along the highways there.”
Reaction to the Gamesa wind farm is split among environmentalists and local residents. Some are concerned for birds and bats and worry about the health of the forest that covers Mahantongo Mountain. Others, like the Martzes, believe the value of nonpolluting energy from wind turbines outweighs the risks. Others are reserving judgment until they get more information.
The Martzes have a 19th century barn on their property that is home in summer to a colony of 40,000 little brown bats. Penn State University researchers have told them it is the largest such colony in the eastern U.S.
Scott Weidensaul, who has published several well-regarded books about birds, said the proximity of the Martz bat colony to the Gamesa wind farm is a particular concern, “given the track record turbines have in the central Appalachians killing large numbers of bats.”
Michael Gannon, a bat expert on the faculty of Penn State Altoona, also is concerned.
“With such a large colony in close proximity to a wind energy site, I would expect serious impact on that population,” he said. “However, the only way to tell is to actually do research and collect data for that site.”
The Martzes are not concerned about the wind turbines, believing their bats don’t fly that high to feed. They typically observe the bats in summer flying down to the nearby river to feed on the abundant insect life.
“We’re sure they [wind turbines] won’t hurt the bats, because they have sonar,” she said.
Bird data sought:
Weidensaul said the wind farm would be at the intersection of two of the more important bird migration corridors in the East – the Susquehanna River and the Appalachian ridges. He said the ridges in that area carry migrant hawks, but because there are no organized hawk watches on Mahantongo Mountain, there is no data on numbers of raptors.
“We know that saw-whet owls migrate along those ridges in large numbers,” he said. “For the past decade, the Ned Smith Center has conducted autumn migration netting in the area … which documented the presence of hundreds of migrant owls passing through.”
Kim Van Fleet is “important bird area coordinator” for Pennsylvania Audubon in Harrisburg. She has reservations about filling the midstate’s mountain ridges with wind turbines “until we know what is going on” regarding use of the ridges by migrating raptors.
Weidensaul and Van Fleet called for pre-construction studies of Mahantongo Mountain – to assess potential bird and bat impact – lasting as long as two migratory seasons. The Pennsylvania Game Commission hopes to formalize wildlife studies of that sort through voluntary agreements with wind-energy developers. Those are still in the talking stage, and some developers say they won’t sign them. The state has few regulations on wind development now.
Michael Peck, a spokesman for Gamesa, said a “Request for Proposal” for environmental studies on Mahantongo Mountain will be put out later this year. The site will be studied for at least a year before construction begins.
“We are very focused on understanding the unique ecosystems and habitat surrounding the Mahantongo project,” he said.
Peck said that because the top of the mountain is narrow, the turbines will be arranged in a line. Gamesa plans to install an access road across the top of the mountain to service them. This new road would connect with “one of several existing public roads, which already provide access to the top of the ridge,” he said.
Jerry Hassinger, a retired biologist for the game commission who lives in Millersburg, said clearing the forest on the mountain to make way for the turbines and the access road is likely to introduce more invasive species. But he doesn’t think it will change the character of the mountain very much.
“The whole area is fairly fragmented already,” he said, referring to gaps in the forest cover of the mountain.
Several environmentalists mentioned a large population of red trillium, a rare wild flower, at the base of Mahantongo Mountain. Hassinger said the mountain drops steeply to the Susquehanna River, and some of the topsoil has washed to the bottom, creating a trillium-friendly area.
“I don’t think the windmills alone will affect that,” he said.
Driving along the south side of Mahantongo Mountain, one sees numerous houses and farms that will be in range of any noise caused by the wind turbines, as well as “shadow flicker,” the disco ball-like movement of shadows created when the sun is behind turning turbine blades. Both have been issues near other wind farms.
Harold Engle, a principal in the Engle-Rissinger auto dealership in Halifax, lives on Mahantongo Mountain near Route 147.
“It’s not going to impact me,” he said. “They’re going to be on the north side of the mountain. I’m on the south. I don’t really know enough about it to have an opinion.”
He has seen the FPL Energy wind farm near Meyersdale in Somerset County, where he has relatives. “It doesn’t seem to be that much of a problem,” said Engle, although some Meyersdale residents interviewed for a Patriot-News story last fall would disagree.
“I have a beautiful view of the Susquehanna,” he said. “Virtually nobody will be able to see them [the wind turbines]. They’ll be up on top of the mountain.”
Marlin E. Miller, who lives along Shippen Dam Road at the base of Mahantongo Mountain, doesn’t know what to think about the turbines.
“There are so many stories,” he said. “When you stop and think about it, we need energy.”
But he said living where he does, with the top of the mountain not that far away, he wonders about the noise.
By David DeKok
Of The Patriot-News
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding