NEW PARIS – Residents determined to stop the Shaffer Mountain Wind Farm have issued a notice of intent to file suit with federal and state agencies over environmental concerns.
The notices were mailed March 2 by environmental attorney Bradley Tupi who is with Tucker/Arensburg Attorneys, Pittsburgh, and is representing several families within the project area.
“We’re still in the information gathering stage, but my job is to do whatever I can to protect the interests of my clients out there,” Tupi said.
Among their concerns is that the project, which will run along the Allegheny Front of the mountain, will impact migrating bird populations including that of the endangered Bald Eagle and Eastern Golden Eagles, he said.
Another potential issue is the possible damaging of the Ethel Creek spring head, which provides high-volume, high-quality water for a local fish hatchery, he said.
The move gives the residents 30 days with state agencies and 60 days with federal agencies to file suit, he said.
The Secretary of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Secretary of Commerce, state Department of Environmental Protection and state Attorney General’s offices were among those receiving letters, he said.
John Buchan Jr., who decided to retain Tupi, said the decision was necessary because earlier this month, Gamesa Energy USA, who owns the subsidiary company developing the 20 plus turbine wind farm, entered the final permit cycle for the project.
Gamesa filed for permits with the Somerset County Conservation District on March 5, starting a process that could take several months, said Keith Largent, an erosion and sediment pollution control technician for the agency.
The district will first review the application for completeness, and if it meets those criteria, then it will enter a technical review of the project’s erosion control plan, he said.
That process could take as little as 50 days or much longer, depending on how many clarifications and resubmissions Gamesa is asked to perform, he said.
After those reviews ,the plan will be sent to the DEP for an individual review because of the nature of the project, he said.
“Any time a project affects a high-quality watershed, which this does, the DEP is required to do an individual review,” Largent said.
The wind farm, which is projected to extend through parts of Shade and Ogle townships in Somerset County and Napier Township in Bedford County, has been subject to extensive studies by Gamesa and should meet environmental standards, company officials said.
Endangered species, bird migrations, bat populations, wetlands impact, commercial and private air traffic, archaeological sites and even electronic transmission interference have all been looked at for the wind farm said Ellen Lutz, Gamesa’s director of development for the Atlantic region.
“We take this very seriously and pride ourselves on our commitment to the environment,” she said.
Project Director Tim Vought detailed many of the studies the company performed over the last several years while explaining the long process a wind farm project goes through from conception to groundbreaking.
Two seasonal studies on bird population flight paths were performed using a mobile marine radar unit, which is so sensitive it can even detect insects in flight, he said. That radar could register returns on birds flying within 1.5 miles of the unit, he said.
Bat populations were netted twice and even tagged with electronic transmitters in order to determine their movements, he said.
Many of those studies were required in order to receive clearance from the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Index, which mandates developers to determine whether endangered animals plants and even some insect populations could be affected by the project, he said.
And while the studies found high altitude wetlands and bogs on the project site, turbines and roads were sited around them, he said.
Transmission lines for the generated electric will be laid underground, except at one point where they cross a stream on the mountain. Then they will be raised to aerial towers so to avoid tampering with the natural course of a high-quality trout stream, he said.
While the mountain was sited for 34 turbines, not all of those will be built if the project is approved, he said. Wind studies will determine the final placement and number of turbines, he said.
Lutz agreed the environmental impact should be minimal. “We’ve been at this a long time. I’ve never heard of a wind farm impacting water quality,” she said.
But New Paris resident Randy Ritchey disagrees with that statement, saying the company has already tried to buy his fish hatchery twice because officials know that pouring the concrete bases for the 398-foot two-megawatt turbines will destroy a high-volume spring that feeds the hatchery.
That spring which originates on Buchan’s property feeds 1,800 to 2,000 gallons of near-pristine water per minute to the Gravity Hill Fish Farm at a temperature of 41 degrees year round, he said.
Since he started in 1990, it has grown to the point where now more than 2.5 million fish come out of his operation a year. Those fish are purchased by a combination of state agencies and private companies, he said.
While Gamesa offered to replace the spring with free wells, he said that he couldn’t continue to produce brown, rainbow, brook and tiger trout without the spring.
“If it wasn’t there. I’d have to pack up and try to catch on with another operation some other place in the county or state,” he said.
Selling out isn’t the right choice for him or his family, he said. “I’m not a rich man. They offered me a significant amount. But I love this. I want this spring to be here longer than I will be,” he said.
He asked Gamesa to move the closest turbines to a point 3,000 feet away from the spring, but they refused, he said.
Vought, who said he knew about the situation, would not confirm any details or make comment for the company.
However, Michael Peck, the head of media and institutional relations for the company, said that Gamesa’s credo includes being a good neighbor.
“We try to work hand in hand. We take our statewide identity very seriously,” he said.
The vast majority of residents that have spoken against the Shaffer Mountain project went on to say that they believe that wind energy could have a positive role in the region.
Karin Sedewar who, along with her husband John, owns 105 acres along Shaffer Mountain. She said that every time she sees hawks and eagles gliding over the area she becomes more convinced the project should be moved elsewhere.
“We’re nature lovers. Those birds fly right over where the windmills will go,” she said. “I’m not against wind energy. This Allegheny Front is not the right place.”
By Dan DiPaolo
10 March 2007
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