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Wind project still in limbo

The fate of the Hoosac Wind Project remains uncertain while both proponents and detractors of the project await a ruling from a state magistrate.

It has been eight months since the last hearing at the state Division of Administrative Law Appeals concerning the proposed $40 million, 20-turbine project, which would produce 2,300 megawatts of electricity. Since that time, the project’s owner, PPM Energy of Portland, Ore., has been anxious to find out if it can proceed with construction or will have to change its plans.

“We had been expecting a ruling in the fall of 2006,” PPM spokeswoman Jan Johnson said. “There’s no question that we wanted to go ahead sooner.”

In August 2005, the project – then owned by California-based energy company enXco – was brought to the division of appeals by two citizens groups and Green Berkshires Inc., which cited environmental concerns, particularly over the building of an access road leading to the proposed sites on Bakke Mountain in Florida and Crum Hill in Monroe.

What was supposed to be a two-day hearing turned into 10 days spread over nearly two years. Thousands of pages of documents were filed by both sides. Green Berkshires claimed the road’s plans may not adequately prevent erosion and storm-water runoff into nearby streams, despite the project’s approval by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Green Berkshires spokeswoman Eleanor Tillinghast said large companies like PPM target small, rural towns that do not have the resources to properly resist a wind farm and claimed the DEP approved the plan because of political pressure.

“The DEP made a hasty, inadequate review of a very complex project,” Tillinghast said. “The political mandate of the state is to be in favor of any wind turbine project. As a result, (the DEP) approved the plan with very little information and fast tracked it through the town’s population.”

In March 2003, Florida voters voted 170-47 at the annual town meeting in favor of a non-bonding resolution backing wind power.

DEP spokeswoman Eva Tor said her agency stands by its original decision.

“We believe we followed the letter of the law of the Wetland Protection Act in our review, and we are now just waiting for the ruling on the appeal,” she said.

That ruling has been a long time coming. Magistrate Natalie Monroe was in charge of the appeal hearings and has been deciding on a course of action since the final hearing in May 2006.

Tillinghast said she has not been surprised at the wait and suggested that if the decision were going to be a simple yes or no, there would have been an answer by now.

After Monroe has reached a decision, she will issue a recommendation to the commissioner of the DEP, who will have the option to either approve the recommendation or disregard it and uphold the DEP evaluation. If the commissioner chooses the latter, Tillinghast said, Green Berkshires will appeal the decision to Superior Court.

“We have not come this far to stop if the ruling does not go in our favor,” she said. “The destruction of our environment, economy and community are not worth the small amount of clean energy and tax revenues the wind farm will bring in.”

Johnson said the delay is costing PPM time and money. She had no exact dollar amount but said there are always costs involved in keeping consultants and contractors on retainer while a project waits for approval. She said most small towns where PPM builds are very supportive of wind power.

“We usually believe the majority of a population over the few individuals and organizations that oppose wind farms based on the visual impact they have on the landscape,” she said. “However, this is how the permitting process works, and we just have to wait.”

By Ryan Hutton, North Adams Transcript