Facing criticism from landowners and local agencies over a proposed wind farm on Shaffer Mountain, Gamesa officials are working to dispel what they say is incorrect information being spread about the project.
“We feel that the wind farm will be a positive for the community. People have some fears, some concerns about the project and we’re going to reach out to the public in the coming months,” said Ellen Lutz, Gamesa’s director of development for the Atlantic region.
The 30-turbine 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 have said.
However, allegations by local landowners that the project will ruin a spring that feeds a New Paris fish hatchery have been of particular concern to the company.
“Our geotechnical testing of the area showed we would not disrupt any underground water supplies,” Lutz said.
But New Paris resident Randy Ritchey has publicly disagreed, maintaining that the company tried to buy his fish hatchery because officials know that pouring the concrete bases for the 398-foot two-megawatt turbines will disrupt the spring.
That spring, which originates on property owned by Jack Buchan, 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.
Gamesa refuted many details of Ritchey’s claim, saying said that they met with Ritchey only after they heard he had concerns about the project and never offered to pay him money.
“That allegation we are flat out saying is not true, as far as the offering of money to Mr. Ritchey,” Scott Tattar, a spokesman for Gamesa, said.
Project Director Tim Vought said that the only compensation discussed with Ritchey was potentially drilling replacement wells for the spring in the unlikely event it were disrupted.
“Frankly, he believes there’s a stream there our maps are not showing,” Lutz said.
Asked about Gamesa’s contention they never offered him money, Ritchey repeated his original statements. “They wanted to buy me out and I said, “˜No way,'” he said.
Company officials feel that much of the public distrust of the project is being driven by disinformation about the technical details of the construction.
Groups opposing the wind farm have publicly stated that the turbines will be more than 450 feet tall and that the concrete bases extend more than 30 feet into the ground.
Those facts aren’t even close to the truth, Vought said. The highest point of the turbine will reach 398 feet and the deepest point of the concrete base is eight feet below ground, he said.
Testing of the project ground revealed that the bases need go no deeper. The concrete and rebar bases will also not require an anchor into the deep ground as the 50-square-foot base is more than adequate to support the turbine, he said.
As for wet cement being poisonous to groundwater supplies? “I’ve never heard of anything like that,” he said.
The project does face at least one serious challenge, however. On March 2 residents determined to stop wind farm issued a notice of intent to file suit with federal and state agencies over environmental concerns including the possible killing of migrating bald eagle and eastern golden eagles.
Environmental attorney Bradley Tupi with Tucker/Arensberg Attorneys, Pittsburgh, is representing several families within the project area. They are determined to modify the placement of the turbines at the very least and stop it if their investigation shows potential damage to the watershed or the protected lands and species living there, he said.
While Gamesa has conducted studies on endangered species, bird migrations, bat populations, wetlands impact, commercial and private air traffic, archaeological sites and even electronic transmission interference, Tupi said those results would have to be independently verified.
Among their concerns is the impact of the project on 1.5 miles of Piney Run, which is classified as an exceptional value wilderness trout stream. The designation is the highest protection status provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection, according to a description on the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Web site.
The turbines will also run along the Allegheny Front of the mountain and could impact migrating bird populations, including that of the endangered bald eagle and eastern golden eagles, Tupi said.
The concerns raised have been enough for four local governing bodies to go on record opposing the project. Members of the Windber Area Authority, Paint Township Board of Supervisors, Paint Borough Council and Windber Borough Council have all voted against the project since February.
“They have the right to their opinions, certainly,” Lutz said, “But I’d like to say that we’re on the side of the community and would like to be represented in that light.”
The debate is already headed to the highest levels of state government. Gov. Edward G. Rendell confirmed that he had recently discussed the bird migrating issue with Dr. Thomas Dick, the founder of the Allegheny Plateau Audubon.
“We’re hopeful that something can be done, perhaps look at the placement, keep them back from the ridge,” Rendell said.
But wind energy projects are an important part of the state’s alternative energy plan, as well as its future, he said. “We try to balance the concerns over the long-term benefits of a pollution-free energy source. They are always going to be trade-offs in these things.”
By Dan DiPaolo
Daily American 30 North Chief
23 March 2007
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