WINDBER – Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm and the proposed site of Shaffer Mountain Wind farm are just 15 miles apart.
But they seem worlds apart in community acceptance.
Both are projects by Gamesa Energy USA. They are on mountaintops, near watersheds and in communities where residents value quality of life.
There the similarities end.
A handful of people questioned Gamesa’s 2005 plans to put 90 turbines on top of Blue Knob Mountain. But many residents now say they live in harmony with the 400-foot-tall towers and the occasional swishing sound.
So eager were the Portage Township supervisors for the turbines and the $3,000 per unit annual host fee, when Gamesa determined two were in Blair County, Portage officials had the county line surveyed and successfully showed the turbines actually are in Cambria County.
Washington Township offered no opposition. In Cresson Township, local activist Etta Albright has concerns, but Allegheny Ridge’s second phase is moving forward unimpeded with a third phase to come.
Gamesa plans to put 30 turbines on Shaffer Mountain in Ogle and Shade townships in Somerset County. Some windmills also would be located in Bedford County.
A groundswell of opposition to Shaffer Mountain Wind LLC has seen billboards displayed along Route 56 urging the Spain-based company to look elsewhere for its wind-energy project.
“The biggest mistake Gamesa made was to think that no one would protect and defend that pristine wilderness area,” said Joe Cominsky, a Shaffer Mountain landowner and member of the group “Save The Mountain.”
Public hearing set
Gamesa’s opponents are well-financed, organized, vocal and committed. As of Friday, money to support the fight totaled $198,000 – money donated by private citizens and environmental organizations.
Dozens of small signs with anti-windmill messages have been placed along the same corridor, including one in the yard of Ogle Township resident Roy Kreasko.
Kreasko said he worries about what will happen to deer hunting on the mountain.
The Web site Shaffer Mountain.com spells out concerns and a direct mail campaign targeted 8,000 homes in the Windber area. Letters to newspapers are a high priority and paid ads are being purchased, said Johnstown businessman and Shaffer Mountain landowner Jack Buchan.
Radio ads on local stations cite the concerns and state legislators are being lobbied, Buchan said.
The state Department of Environmental Protection will hold a public meeting and hearing at 6 p.m. Aug. 28 at Shade High School, a step prompted by concerns and requests from more than 350 residents.
The goal is to gather feedback on Gamesa’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, a document addressing environmental issues that could arise during construction.
“The DEP is not required to host a public meeting. However we are required to provide an opportunity for public comment,” DEP spokeswoman Helen Humphreys said. “Our goal is to give residents an opportunity to express their concerns.”
Water quality is a big issue with windmill opponents. They fear the impact the project could have on Clear Shade Creek and Piney Run, two of only 28 “exceptional value” trout streams in the state, they said.
In addition, the mountain-top is a “bottleneck for migration” of raptors, including the eastern golden eagles and endangered Indiana bats, Buchan said.
Charles Harteis lives a quarter-mile from the summit. He thinks there are less intrusive places for the turbines to be built.
“Personally, I think they should look at old strip mines,” Harteis said as he put up a “Stop Gamesa” sign at his Ogle Township home.
Gamesa representatives will be at the hearing, ready to defend their site plans.
“The main reason Gamesa has selected Shaffer Mountain is that it has a tremendous amount of wind, it has some of the best wind in the state of Pennsylvania,” said Ellen Lutz, Gamesa’s director of development for the Atlantic Region.
“The production will be high, meaning fewer windmills.”
The site is away from major population bases and the company has the experience and expertise to handle the environmental aspects of the mountain, she said.
Buchan said a far better place is a mile south of the proposed site on the Somerset County side a half-mile from the Allegheny Front.
A number of areas, including Buchan’s proposed location, were considered, but did not suit Gamesa’s needs, said Shaffer Mountain project manager Tim Vought.
“These (locations) are 400 feet lower in elevation and that really does create a significant loss in wind-power potential,” he said.
A strip-mine site in the area was considered, but another wind developer had gotten there first, Vought said.
Lutz said strip mines typically do not provide the stable foundation needed for turbines weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds.
“It depends on the strip mine and what type of mining was done there,” she said. “Often, the subsidence in strip mines is great.”
She said the footprint that windmills leave is small, and the mountain land still can be used for hunting, recreation and farming.
Lutz said critics should look to Allegheny Ridge, where Bens Creek provides water for Portage Borough.
“We’re actually doing more studies than on Allegheny Ridge,” Lutz said.
Those studies look at potential project impact on bats, birds and raptors and other environmental concerns.
“We’re making sure the windfarm is properly sited,” Lutz said.
Gamesa and local residents have similar interests, Vought said of efforts to make minimal impact on wildlife and the environment.
Many of the concerns voiced by the Shaffer Mountain opposition also existed with the Allegheny Ridge project, said Portage Township resident and former Supervisor Bruce Brunett. He opposed the turbines near his home.
“We didn’t have enough time to organize a resistance in Portage Township,” Brunett said. “Shaffer Mountain people had a year or so.”
Land deals were ironed out and the project needed only municipal approval before it became public, he said.
Buchan hopes to get his group’s concerns before a judge.
A Pittsburgh-based environmental lawyer has been retained, and Buchan said his troops are ready to duke it out in court with Gamesa.
“We’re not against wind power at all,” Buchan said. “We don’t want to mess the deal up for the wind developer. All we want is for Gamesa to do the reasonable thing and move this project out of this natural heritage area of exceptional significance.”
The state Supreme Court has been asked to hear arguments about a Luzerne County wind turbine development. The debate in that region is credited in part with the ousting of Bear Creek Township Supervisor Ed Benkoski, who lost in a 2005 election.
“There were a number of issues in the township – there were septic and park issues – but it (wind farm) played a role,” said Ken Klemow, a biology professor at Wilkes University. Klemow did environmental studies of the proposed windmill site near Wilkes-Barre.
The first Bear Creek project by Community Energy Inc. – featuring 12 turbines in the Pocono Mountains – went in without resistance, said reporter Rory Sweeney of The Times Leader newspaper.
But permitting of the two-phased Penobscot Mountain Wind Farm in the same township hit snags.
“This took a complete 180 and it looks like the (anti-turbine coalition) is going to win, Sweeney said.
Environmental concerns prompted local officials to deny the Penobscot permit and a state appeals court upheld that decision. The developer now is looking to the state Supreme Court for relief.
Shaffer Mountain opposition comes as no surprise to Frank Maisano, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for a coalition of wind developers.
“This is consistent with projects all around the mid-Atlantic where you see a base level of coordination between people who run around and spur anti-wind activity,” he said.
Meanwhile, Buchan promises Gamesa is seeing just the beginning of the anti-wind activity for Shaffer Mountain.
“If the people do what they say they’re going to do,” he said, “it’s going to get crazy.”
By Kathy Mellott
19 August 2007
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding