The Hoosac Wind project planned for Florida and Monroe now hangs on a pending ruling by the acting commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
Natalie S. Monroe, an administrative magistrate with the Division of Administrative Law Appeals, ruled against the project in three of eight issues brought forward by 10 citizens of Florida and representatives of Green Berkshires in February 2005.
Her ruling was submitted to the DEP on May 14. It is now under review by the acting DEP commissioner, Arlene O’Donnell, who can either overturn the ruling, which yanked a wetlands permit issued by DEP officials, or back it up. A DEP spokesman said O’Donnell’s decision would be announced in several weeks.
The project would construct 20 340-foot wind turbines – 11 on Bakke Mountain in Florida and nine on Crum Hill in Monroe. Originally scheduled for completion in 2007, the 1.5-megawatt GE turbines would generate enough electricity to power 10,000 households.
Officials at PPM Energy, the developer of the project, say that they are confident the DEP will rule that its wetlands permit was correctly issued. They do not say what their intentions are if the ruling goes against them.
Some are concerned, however, that if the ruling is endorsed by the DEP, there are some precedents set that would have to be applied to any future development project and some that are already under permit.
For example, the Hoosac Wind plan calls for the use of open bottom box culverts to protect the integrity of streams while at the same time a road can cross the stream, an accepted practice in modern construction projects that, until now, had been approved by the DEP.
But, because the use of an open bottom box culvert removes sunlight from that section of the stream, Monroe contends in her ruling, plants that grow on the banks cannot survive, and when the plants die, the stream bank’s integrity is compromised, endangering the stability of the stream.
She also said that the developer and the DEP had not accurately depicted the length of stream bank affected. The report noted that about 50 feet would be affected, but because there is a bank on both sides of the stream, that number should be doubled. Anything over 50 feet triggers a requirement for a wildlife habitat study.
The applicant, she also ruled, did not “accurately delineate the top of the inland banks at 11 streams at the site.”
Eleanor Tillinghast, president of Green Berkshires, in a previous news report said that the ruling was “a decisive win” and that the citizens who filed the appeal were “courageous” for taking on the developer and the DEP.
Jan Johnson, a spokeswoman for PPM Energy, said the developer is confident that the ruling will be overturned.
“We agree with the DEP’s original permitting and are confident the acting commissioner will back the original permit,” Johnson said. “We really, truly believe we’re going to have a 2008 time line.”
The plan now calls for construction to begin next spring and be operational by the end of the year, she said.
State Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, said that the ruling, if upheld, would set a “dangerous precedent.”
“My concern is what does this do to future projects anytime we have to cross a stream?” Bosley said.
He noted that the level of opposition to this project leads him to believe that it is no longer a discussion of the merits of the project but that “it’s about bleeding the developer of so much money that he eventually throws up his hands and walks away.”
Narain Schroeder, director of land conservation for Berkshire Natural Resources Council, said no one is trying to kill a wind turbine project, but instead trying to ensure that it does not negatively affect the environment and communities.
“There are laws to protect the public interests and private property interests, and nobody is above the law, even if they purport to be a green energy source,” he said. “These ridgelines matter, and we need to know what’s there. We need to know what we’re sacrificing.”
Bosley said there should be a better process in place that determines the environmental impact and viability of a wind project proposal.
“We need to make sure it’s the right project in the right place, and if it is, then let’s permit the damn thing and get it up and running,” he said.
Susan Brown, Florida town administrator, said that town officials support the project and that, during a town meeting two years ago, about 70 percent of the residents in attendance expressed support for it.
“We had been hoping to see the project up and running by now,” she added.
Brown noted that several aspects of the magistrate’s ruling “are different from anything wetlands projects have seen before and conflicts with the government’s idea of wetlands permitting.”
She said that, in her view, the appeal permit was filed by parties who are hoping to kill the project.
“It all depends on how long the developer is willing to wait before he says, ‘We’ve invested enough money in this, and we’re getting nowhere,’ ” Brown said.
“We still believe in it, the developer still believes in it – the fight is far from over,” Brown said.
By Scott Stafford
Berkshire Eagle Staff
8 June 2007
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