Endangered bats and birds are at risk from Virginia’s first proposed wind farm, but construction should proceed with the warning that its massive blades will be stopped at times if too many carcasses pile up.
That was the decision Thursday from a State Corporation Commission hearing examiner who gave conditional approval to the controversial project in Highland County.
Supporters and opponents have 21 days to comment on the hearing examiner’s report. The case will then be forwarded to the commission for a final decision, which is expected early this summer.
Highland New Wind Development LLC plans to build 19 wind turbines on a ridge line near the West Virginia border as part of the wind energy industry’s expansion from the West to the eastern United States.
Supporters say the Highland County project will generate clean energy and tax revenue without harming the environment.
The hearing examiner’s report “looks like a total victory for us,” said Frank Maisano, a wind energy lobbyist and spokesman for Highland New Wind. “It really underscores the importance of this project to Virginia.”
Opponents say it will industrialize the wilderness, clearing the way for more 400-foot-high turbines in one of Virginia’s most pristine corners.
“I’m disappointed” in the hearing examiner’s recommendation, said Rick Webb, a University of Virginia professor who lives in Highland County. “This is one of the worst conceivable places” for wind turbines because it’s a migratory pathway for bats and birds.
The project has generated controversy and legal and regulatory wrangling since 1999 when Henry McBride, a Harrisonburg businessman and Highland New Wind’s principal, initially proposed constructing a wind farm on his Highland County land.
The SCC hearing examiner found that because the turbines pose a significant risk to bats and a risk to birds, three years of post-construction studies should be conducted by Highland New Wind and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The commission can accept, reject or modify the hearing officer’s recommendation on the project, the first commercial wind-powered electric generation facility proposed in Virginia.
SCC spokesman Ken Schrad declined comment on what action the commission would take.
If the project is approved, Highland New Wind would have two years to obtain all permits from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and start construction or its operating certificate would expire.
Among the DEQ requirements are providing a detailed final site plan, avoiding streams if possible and protecting natural resources and wildlife.
In an 84-page report, SCC hearing examiner Alexander Skirpan wrote that the project will advance electric competition, will positively affect economic development, doesn’t threaten the reliability of the electric system and isn’t contrary to the public interest.
Skirpan determined that the turbines can operate under Virginia law, but only under conditions designed to minimize bat and bird kills and other environmental degradations.
Additional pre-construction studies wouldn’t help to predict bat and bird kills, but three years of post-construction monitoring should determine the actual risk and dictate how the turbines are operated, Skirpan said.
He said the turbines pose no risk to other species, including the endangered northern flying squirrel.
He recommended VDGIF have approval of Highland New Wind’s bat and bird monitoring plan before the turbines start operating and that the company pay up to $150,000 a year for the monitoring program.
He recommended VDGIF and the company cooperate to create the monitoring plan, including how often bat and bird carcasses are collected, who collects them, weather, wind speed and other data.
The SCC would resolve any disputes between the state agency and the company over the monitoring plan.
VDGIF and Highland New Wind also should decide how many bat and bird kills would trigger limitations on how the turbines operate, such as stopping the blades for two hours after sunset between July and November when bats are most active, Skirpan said.
Threatened and endangered bat and bird species that have been documented in the area are the Indiana bat, gray bat, Virginia big-eared bat, bald eagle and golden eagle.
State or federal agencies with oversight on the wind project should have reasonable access to the site to check up on the monitoring program, he said.
Projects opponents also said the turbines would harm views and eco-tourism, but Skirpan said Highland County officials have jurisdiction over those issues and that state law prohibited the SCC from considering them.
He also said it was impractical for Highland New Wind to conduct a cumulative impact study of operating and proposed wind turbines at all 34 wind facilities in the Alleghany Highlands of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Maisano said local land-use regulations have been properly followed and that Highland New Wind has agreed all along that post-construction studies should be done in cooperation with state and federal wildlife agencies.
He said the start of construction will depend on decisions from the SCC and the Virginia Supreme Court.
The high court will hear opponents’ arguments in June that the Highland County Board of Supervisors violated local land-use regulations when it approved the project. A ruling is expected in September.
Opponents also have filed a notice of intent to sue in federal court if the turbines kill bats and birds protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Webb said Virginia shouldn’t approve wind turbines until the state creates siting requirements based on both electrical needs and independent environmental studies.
He said he was encouraged that VDGIF would be involved in the post-construction bat and bird monitoring.
“But it’s hard to conceive that a $60 million project would actually be stopped” after it’s built even if a large number of bats and birds are killed, he said.
By John Cramer
2 March 2007
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