In yet another round of testimony, the environment played a central role in discussions on how a proposed 39-megawatt industrial wind utility may or may not be harmful to some of the richest and rarest species of wildlife in Virginia.
Tuesday, the courtroom at the State Corporation Commission was host to nearly more lawyers than private citizens. This was the second hearing hosted by the SCC, one requested by commissioners after they remanded Highland New Wind Development’s application for a state permit back to their hearing examiner for more information.
Specifically, the SCC wanted to gain a fuller understanding of how damage to species and the environment caused by the 18-20 turbines proposed along the 4,000-foot Allegheny Mountain ridge might be prevented or mitigated were the state to grant a permit for the facility.
And by the end of the day, testimony had not been completed and the hearing examiner ordered a continuation through Wednesday.
Highland citizens opposed to the project arrived to show support and testify; they included Allegheny Mountain landowners Pendleton Goodall, whose property abuts the project site land, and Patti Reum of Bear Mountain Farm and Retreat.
After a long day in downtown Richmond, Reum said she was feeling disappointed in how the case was moving forward. “I think it’s criminal what they’re doing,” she said Wednesday, referring to the case getting serious consideration as Virginia’s first commercial wind energy plant. “If you have no ethics, no morality about the environment you live in, then we’ve really lost touch (as humans) … I care more about the environment than humans because humans just mess it up. I guess I feel things too deeply for nature.”
Reum and Blue Grass resident Sandy Hevener both testified about their recent compilation of data on sightings of bald and golden eagles in the project site area. Now in their second year collecting information, Hevener noted 1,100- 1,200 bald eagle sightings had been recorded, with a summer and winter population about equal. “The golden eagle population is larger here in winter, and they’ve been spotted in Highland County in every month of the year since January 2006.”
After sponsoring a “Golden Chase” eagle-sighting event, the women have continued to look for a golden eagle nest, which would be a rare find on the East Coast. And there’s one nest found just last week that has potential, though they are waiting for eagle experts to come to Highland to determine if that’s what it is. The nest was found on a 60-foot cliff’s rock ledge about 900 feet above the valley floor. While it cannot be ruled out yet as a bald eagle nest, the highest bald eagle nest found in Highland so far is only 150 feet off the valley floor. Bald eagles in Highland typically build their nests in trees at lower elevations, but golden eagles are known to use rock outcroppings much higher. Hevener and Reum told the SCC it should, at minimum, hold off on a decision until the nest is seen by experts because if it belongs to a golden eagle, that would be an important environmental finding.
Hearing examiner Alexander Skirpan told Reum the record on eagles had already been established. “We’ve already ruled that eagles are a concern,” he said, urging her to keep her testimony related to monitoring programs and mitigation.
Reum pointed out eagles had been seen in the area all seasons, and the most common suggestion for preventing them from being killed by the rotating blades of the turbines was to turn them off sometimes. “Since we have these animals year-round, when would you turn them off?” she said, offering further testimony that Highland ridges should be “totally avoided” by wind energy developers.
Local bat and cave expert Rick Lambert of Monterey offered an update on data from the Virginia Highlands Grotto. He said since its 2006 report, some endangered Indiana bats had been tagged to follow their movements, and 15 percent of them traveled through Highland County; and 15 percent were seen on Allegheny Mountain. In addition, though the bats’ population had declined in its normal habitat area in other states, they had actually increased in this region near the project site. “We can reasonably predict there are 4,886 bats moving into Highland County,” Lambert said. “And we can reasonably predict there are 1,978 bats on Allegheny Mountain … The population of Indiana bats in Highland County is much higher than expected. Any monitoring and mitigation procedures are going to have to take this into account.”
Several witnesses urged the SCC to make HNWD pay for any and all monitoring or mitigation, though the company’s attorney, John Flora, said those costs would be too much for the developer to shoulder. “After five years and $2 million, we’re on the verge of a final permit,” he said, noting HNWD owner H.T. “Mac” McBride’s “fortitude and entrepreneurial spirit should be applauded,” not punished by further expenses estimated at more than $6.8 million for studies. Flora said HNWD was relieved the SCC was not requiring more pre-construction studies, but “frustrated” by what he called a “lack of judgment” by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in its estimates for post-construction monitoring. “That’s unheard of in this country,” Flora said. “Turbine costs are higher, and most are owned by larger developers … (HNWD) will have trouble obtaining turbines, but the development costs are the same, and they are already burdened by this fiveyear public process.”
Attorney Anthony Gambardella, on behalf of Highland citizens opposing the project, said a monitoring plan for the project is necessary, and the one suggested by HNWD is inadequate. “Highland citizens maintain the permit should not be granted,” he said, especially since the facility’s operation could begin without considering the Endangered Species Act. He said the developer should be required to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a habitat conservation plan, and in obtaining an incidental take permit for endangered species.
Attorney Wiley Mitchell, representing The Nature Conservancy in Virginia, said the conservancy does not wish to defeat the project, but wants to work with the SCC to develop protocols that will protect the environment.
“The Nature Conservancy agrees a monitoring plan is necessary,” he said, but disagrees with Highland citizens that no sufficient mitigation procedures can be found.
He stressed the conservancy does agree HNWD should bear all the expenses related to monitoring and mitigation, just like any other electric power company would. “The Nature Conservancy would like to see this project move forward with mitigated risk. The applicant needs to figure mitigation expenses in its economic analysis,” he said.
Highland County attorney Melissa Dowd said county supervisors had asked her to attend the hearing to reiterate points the county had made before. “The board (of supervisors) did not ever claim to have expertise with birds and bats,” she said. “We encourage all parties to think of the term mitigation as broadly as possible.”
She noted HNWD had not yet submitted a final site plan to the county, one that included computer simulations, and doing so was required as part of its conditional use permit, and conditions attached might be a good tool for the SCC to consider. “The board of supervisors is painfully aware of the cost of being the first to do something,” she said, “and would like county taxpayers to get revenue (from the project) sooner rather than later.”
Randy Richardson, president of Highlanders for Responsible Development, told the SCC he could not understand why HNWD would be balking at paying the cost of monitoring and mitigation efforts. “From the beginning, (HNWD) touted the project as economically viable. Now they say if they’re forced to spend more money they can’t build it? No one asked you to bring the project to Highland,” he said, speaking to McBride. “If the cost of the project is greater than you can afford, don’t do it.”
Dr. Paul Kerlinger, an expert witness speaking for HNWD, testified that bald or golden eagles had no problems with wind turbine towers elsewhere in the U.S. He proposed that if some were killed, more acres of red spruce could be planted as a mitigation effort.
Kerlinger also said he believed only one form of mitigation was currently capable of reducing the number of birds or bats killed by the blades, and that was to curtail the amount of time the blades were spinning.
Under cross-examination by the attorney general’s office lawyer, Kerlinger agreed HNWD had not suggested any curtailing.
“Neither of these plans call for anything like that?” the attorney asked.
“No, there’s no effective mitigation included,” Kerlinger said.
Dr. Merlin Tuttle, a witness for the conservancy, disagreed with Kerlinger’s statements that looking for dead carcasses under the turbines once every seven days would capture enough data. Instead, Tuttle said, he would be more interested in searching daily because some environmental events happen in only one night, and scavengers can remove carcasses very quickly. “I believe we’re close to being able to predict when curtailment is most effective, and least costly to the company,” he said. “Curtailment is the most viable goal.”
After a midday break, more witnesses were called throughout the afternoon, and Skirpan continued the hearing into Wednesday.
Once testimony concludes, Skirpan will issue another report to the three SCC commissioners for consideration, after which they will make a final decision on whether to grant HNWD its state permit.
Most attending this week felt the project would get its permit, and construction would be allowed to proceed. Four of those opposing the facility’s placement on Allegheny Mountain said they were disappointed not to get more of the current data on the record through their own attorneys, but all agreed HNWD should pay for any monitoring and mitigation procedures established by the SCC and attached to the state permit.
Testimony concluding this week will be posted to: [Virginia State Corporation Commission].
By Anne Adams
19 July 2007
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding