Shaffer Mountain is the wrong place for wind turbines. That was the sentiment of the vast majority of an often vocal crowd of more than 120 people attending a town hall meeting sponsored by wind energy company Gamesa Energy USA.
Described by company officials as an event that would dispel misinformation and open a controversial turbine project to public comment, the Wednesday forum held at the university of Pittsburgh at Johnstown grew heated at times as local residents opposing the Shaffer Mountain Wind Farm voiced their opinions.
“It’s an exceptional value ecosystem up on Shaffer Mountain. It’s not just about the water, it’s about the entire ecology,” said Larry Hutchinson, president of the Shade Creek Watershed association.
Residents voiced concerns ranging from a road system that would impact naturally reproducing trout streams, to fragmenting the ecology of high-altitude wetlands to killing migrating species of protected raptors along the Allegheny Front.
However Gamesa officials maintained that their project, if approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection, will meet strict environmental standards. “We have good science behind this,” Ellen Lutz, Gamesa’s director of development for the Atlantic region, said. “I understand that people have a lot of passion about this mountain and we respect that.”
Project developer Tim Vought said that he was a Somerset County resident and was confident the project could be completed with little environmental impact. “We’d like for the least amount of impact to occur,” he said.
That passion was in evidence throughout the meeting as moderators sometimes struggled to keep the crowd from getting out of hand. Many times during the 90 minute meeting those attending would clap and cheer after a person opposing the project spoke.
“Why don’t you go back to Philadelphia,” was yelled out several times, referencing the project’s headquarters.
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 become the subject of mass mailings, billboards and media coverage in the last six months.
Scott Tattar, a spokesman for Gamesa, said that the company has been dealing with an increasing amount of biased and old information about wind energy in general and the Shaffer Mountain project in particular.
“That was one of the reasons that we decided to hold this meeting,” he said. Lutz said that during the meeting that more of the events would be held.
Among the concerns raised were the availability of studies done by the company on migration patterns of birds like the Bald eagle and Golden Eagles and other animals like the endangered Indiana bat.
She invited people like Dr. Thomas Dick, a vocal opponent and the founder of the Allegheny Plateau Audubon, to view the portions of those studies already completed.
“Of course many of the studies we have are ongoing, but anyone is welcome to see the results,” she said. Some of the completed studies are also a matter of public record and are available from the agencies they were submitted to, she said.
Len Lichvar, on hand representing Mountain Laurel chapter of Trout Unlimited, presented a position paper the group wrote voicing concern over the impact the project would on Piney Run, 1.5 miles of which is classified as an Exceptional Value wilderness trout stream. The Exceptional Value designation is the highest protection status provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“We don’t think wind turbines are worth the risk,” Lichvar, who is also a state Fish and Boat Commission board member said. The problem is not in getting permits, but in overseeing the work is done right. “Who’s going to mind the store,” he said.
Company officials said that the project would be visited at least once a week by an environmental specialist as well as state officials.
One Cambria county resident was in favor of the project. Richard Bair, who owns property in Ogle Township said he was confident the company would not harm the mountain and that wind energy was an important part of the country’s renewable energy program.
Bair, whose family maintains a summer cabin on the 130 acres, agreed to lease two turbines to Gamesa.
Opponents not only questioned every aspect of the project but also warned them that the developing the mountain could give them bad karma if they weren’t careful.
William Schrock, a mountain resident, said an old Indian burial ground would come back to haunt them if the destroyed the mountain. “It will follow the company all the way back to Spain,” he said of the Legend of Shaffer Mountain.
By Dan DiPaolo
Daily American 30 North Chief
21 June 2007
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