Residents and landowners near the proposed Highland New Wind Development utility site have long expressed their belief the project poses many threats, not only to the environment but to the quality of life in Highland County as related to its economy.
Ralph H. Swecker, Chris Swecker, Pendleton Goodall, McChesney Goodall, William Goodall, Wayne Goodall, and Gregory Warnock filed their post-hearing brief in the case that was similar to The Nature Conservancy’s position on environmental protection, but also pointed out the detrimental effects on tourism in the area and historic sites.
The citizens’ brief says HNWD failed to meet its burden of proof that environmental impacts are acceptable; failed to provide all the information requested by state agencies in the process; failed to show how it would minimize environmental impacts; and failed to show the project is not contrary to public interest.
The environmental studies produced by HNWD “were designed with minimal effort and without a sound scientific basis,” citizens said. They pointed out state agencies all said they needed more information before a full evaluation could be completed. “HNWD has disregarded these repeated requests and has failed to produce information that would allow the SCC to adequately and meaningfully evaluate this project,” they said. “The information that was contained in the reports shows that the project site is subject to one of the highest bird and bat migration rates ever recorded in the East, is within the documented migration pathway of endangered bats, is visited by the bald eagle and has been one of the few places in Virginia where an endangered squirrel has been captured. During the evidentiary hearing, HNWD promised to produce the complete results of its latest bat study that was supposed to address many of the concerns about the project’s impact on bats. The “˜study’ that was ultimately filed on Dec. 28, 2006, however, is totally devoid of any meaningful information further demonstrating HNWD’s inability to meet the licensing criteria. All of this has led the Virginia agency in charge of managing Virginia’s wildlife to conclude that the project as proposed presents “˜an unacceptable risk to wildlife.'”
Furthermore, they said, HNWD’s utility “will not benefit the commonwealth in any significant manner. The energy produced by the turbines will be sold to states that have renewable portfolio standards, the project will not reduce emissions in Virginia; the project will negatively impact ecotourism in Highland County; and the project will negatively alter the undeveloped ridgelines that are visible from the Virginia Birder trail, potentially scenic byways such as route 220 and 250 and Laurel Fork a scenic river.”
Citizens stressed, “The application process here is not about the desirability of wind energy but whether this proposed project meets the requirements of Virginia law. It does not. Therefore, Highland citizens respectfully request that HNWD’s application be denied.”
No burden of proof
Before a permit can be granted for an electrical generation facility in Virginia, citizens explained, an applicant must demonstrate the impact on the environment and how it intends to minimize those impacts. “HNWD has failed to meet either of these statutorily mandated requirements,” they said.
In addition, the reviewing agencies involved said they did not have sufficient information to evaluate impacts on natural and historic resources. “Throughout the process DGIF has consistently requested additional information from HNWD to no avail,” they said.
“HNWD should not be permitted to emasculate the environmental assessment process by choosing to provide insufficient information for a valid and meaningful assessment.”
Risk to wildlife
“The little site specific information that has been provided to the SCC or the state agencies leads to one clear conclusion – the HNWD wind turbine project would have a significant negative impact on wildlife in the area,” citizens wrote.
Their brief outlined testimony to support their argument, similar to that provided by The Nature Conservancy. “In requesting its permit, HNWD is asking the SCC to ignore the unanimous concern from the state and federal agencies that the project will have a substantial negative impact on the unique wildlife in Highland County. By not providing the requested information HNWD is hoping to fly under the SCC radar and get an approval on a less than complete record.
“There is universal agreement that this project will kill bats and that the project is within the migratory distance of the Indiana bat. There is also agreement among the parties that endangered bats do not possess a unique ability that would enable them to avoid the sweeping rotors. Given those undisputed facts it is a logical conclusion that an endangered bat will be killed by this project in violation of the Endangered Species Act.”
As for eagles, citizens said, “Once again, with a minimal amount of site specific study, HNWD’s conclusory statements have been proven to be wholly inaccurate. Recent birding studies conducted from Jan. 13 to April 15, 2006 documented over 100 bald and golden eagle sightings in Highland County, including the first confirmed bald eagle nests. Even HNWD’s own subsequent study demonstrated that on the one day they visited the site there was a bald eagle eating at the project site itself.”
These Highland residents pointed also to similar testimony about the northern flying squirrel.
No reduction of greenhouse gases
Citizens said the primary benefit HNWD says its project will have is reducing emissions from traditional coal fired power plants, but that its expert’s conclusions are flawed, and no complex model simulations to prove that theory have been conducted. “HNWD’s project will not compete against fossil-fired sources but instead will compete against other future potential qualifying renewable power sources for a special set-aside and protected renewable market,” they said. “Virginia does not currently have such a standard so the energy produced by the turbines would be shipped out of state. As a result, therefore, there will be no avoided emissions in Virginia if the project is put in place.”
Highland is nicknamed “Little Switzerland” due to is high elevation and mountainous terrain, they noted, citing their expert witness who said that “In addition to being the most beautiful, Highland County is the most biologically exceptional of any county in Virginia. Its generally undisturbed landscape, diversity of habitats, and high elevations offer a vital sanctuary to a wide variety of warblers and other birds, some of which are threatened or endangered species.”
“In addition to ruining the uninterrupted ridge lines that helps to attract visitors and residents to Highland County, the turbines will be visible from Camp Allegheny which has been listed as one of the nation’s most significant battlefields. Camp Allegheny has also been identified as one of the few undisturbed Civil War battlefields in the nation and has been listed in the National Register since 1990. The National Parks Conservation Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation both appeared at the public hearing expressing “˜grave concerns’ about the wind turbines potential impact on the integrity of this significant national historic site,” they noted. “The remoteness of the battlefield setting is one of its most important aspects. Both of these organizations echo the concerns previously expressed by the DHR that the turbines will have a negative impact on the historical Camp Allegheny.
“Moreover, all these organizations have stated that the information provided by HNWD is insufficient to try to develop any plans to mitigate the negative impact on the battlefield. All have called for a detailed viewshed analysis, a historic resources inventory and a comprehensive site plan in order to evaluate the impact and to create any potential mitigating measures. To date, none of this information has been provided.”
One of Highland’s leading industries, ecotourism, would also be negatively impacted, they said. “Visitors come to take in Highland County’s pristine environment, breathtaking scenic beauty, recreational opportunities and unique flora and fauna.
“Highland County is known for its scenic beauty and unique habitat that supports a diverse animal population,” the citizens concluded. “From the outset of the SCC process, HNWD has tried to provide as little information as possible in an effort to manipulate and limit the review process. (State agencies) have all stated that the information submitted by HNWD was not sufficient for them to determine the impact upon wildlife but that the information that was provided indicated that there is a likelihood of significant bat and bird mortality “¦ HNWD, therefore, has failed to meet its statutory burden by demonstrating an acceptable risk to wildlife or otherwise providing methods of mitigating such risks.”
By Anne Adams “¢ Staff Writer
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