CENTRAL CITY – The hearing opened with a small controversy and stayed heated late into Thursday evening as more than 450 people crowded into the high school gym in order to give testimony on the proposed Shaffer Mountain Wind Farm.
With state Department of Environmental Protection officials on hand to take comment, groups opposing the 30-turbine Gamesa Energy USA project were asked by DEP to move anti-project materials and sign pickets out of the gym entrance.
“We’re here to talk about the permit application made by Gamesa,” said DEP spokeswoman Helen Humphreys. “We asked a number of groups to move in order to have space here tonight.”
However, a number of people said DEP’s move reflected a bias toward the Spanish wind energy company.
“They’re supposed to regulate, not advocate,” said resident John Buchan, a vocal opponent. “All we want is a fair shake.”
Those same opposition groups were allowed to put their feelings about the project on record, and more than 50 people took that opportunity as the testimony process lasted well past 10 p.m.
A number also submitted written testimony on the project, the vast majority opposing it.
But there were pockets of support for the project as more than 40 members of the United Steel Workers local 2653 bussed in to the meeting.
“We believe in the environmental benefits of wind energy,” said Troy Galloway, of Hollsopple, who has worked at Gamesa’s Ebensburg plant for more than a year.
Tempers at times grew short in the heat as some residents yelled at Gamesa officials during a pre-testimony presentation on the project, which is slated to extend through parts of Shade and Ogle townships in Somerset County and Napier Township in Bedford County.
“This is the largest I’ve seen,” said Humphreys. “Normally, two people giving testimony is a lot.” More than 300 written requests for a hearing were made to the department and 42 signed up to testify before the event, she said.
Gamesa officials talked at length about the plan, with Ellen Lutz, Gamesa’s director of development for the Atlantic region; project developer Tim Vought; Mike Boyle, a professional engineer for Tetra Tech EC Inc.; Chuck Harmon, a senior associate ecologist with AMEC; and John Chenger, of Bat Conservation and Management of Carlisle, giving details on their studies.
But the issue people seemed to be the most concerned with was whether DEP would give science priority when considering a permit and then hold to regulating it.
“I hope this hearing isn’t a show. We are skeptical because history has taught us a harsh lesson,” said David Sewak, who represented the Mountain Laurel Trout Unlimited chapter at the hearing.
He specifically referenced a 2004 acid mine drainage spill into Higgins Run, near Quemahoning Reservoir, which wiped out native trout populations and their food for hundreds of yards. “That was DEP approved, too,” he said.
Rita Coleman, a program manager in the DEP Southwest Regional office, said that science would take precedent over policy in the permit review, but also acknowledged that the crowd’s mood would likely not be swayed by simple a statement. “From the way it looks here tonight, it looks like it’s going to play out in court,” she said.
Gamesa officials are planning on filing a final version of their technical plan Oct. 28, and the department will review environmental concerns and public testimony as part of the permit cycle, Coleman said.
While the department’s mandate in permitting is storm water management, soil and erosion controls, other agencies lacking enforcement over such projects have provided input on environmental concerns like impacts on animal populations and habitats, Coleman said.
By Dan DiPaolo
29 August 2007
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