CAIRNBROOK, Pa. – Since 1989, Angelo and Marian Mincone have made weekly 80-mile trips from their home in Allegheny County to an Appalachian ridge top to count the migrating raptors that ride the thermal winds.
Mr. Mincone fears that a Gamesa Energy USA proposal to build 30 wind turbines on nearby Shaffer Mountain could endanger the hawks, falcons and, especially, the eastern golden eagles that fly low to feed along the Allegheny Front. He doesn’t want to see a repeat of the mistake that has resulted in the deaths of more than 4,700 birds, including 1,300 raptors, each year at the much larger Altamont Pass wind project near San Francisco.
“Those raptors at Altamont are killed by the turbines because they’re flying low and hunting, just like our birds here are hunting,” said Mr. Mincone, who last year helped the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch count nine species of raptors and a record 18,000 birds.
“The golden eagle is our big concern because the population is only 1,000, and one-third of them go through the wind turbine site and could get whacked.”
Birds are just one of the issues flapping around the Gamesa proposal to build 404-foot-tall wind turbines in an ecologically sensitive watershed on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Plateau.
Many residents also oppose the project because of concerns about degradation of two “exceptional value” streams, impacts on the endangered Indiana bat, flashing strobe lights on the turbine towers, blade noise, forest fragmentation, tourism, aesthetics and even rattlesnakes.
The opponents’ Web site, ShafferMountain.com, has collected 1,194 signatures against the development, and anti-wind-turbine-project signs line the two-lane roads that curve through the small towns and farm fields of northeastern Somerset County.
Opposition to the Shaffer Mountain project turns on the old Realtor’s mantra of “location, location, location.” The wind turbines would be built near the Bedford County line and in the watershed of Piney Run and Clear Shade Creek, two of the state’s 28 exceptional value streams – a designation reserved for creeks with the highest water quality and biological diversity. The site is also in the middle of a Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Area of Exceptional Significance.
The project, which has a maximum electric-generation capacity of 66 megawatts on 22,000 acres of leased, forested, ridge-top land, also raises hard questions for environmentalists and regulators about the expected expansion of wind-power projects and the need to balance their benefits against potential environmental harm.
Pennsylvania is the leading producer of wind energy east of the Mississippi River, generating 153 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 70,000 homes. By law, the state must produce 18 percent of its energy from alternative sources by 2020, and the Rendell administration’s goal is to boost wind power production to more than 3,000 megawatts during the next 15 years. That would require construction of about 1,400 wind turbines.
But Pennsylvania, unlike Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Canada, has no regulations for siting wind turbine projects. Instead, it relies on voluntary guidelines produced by the state Game Commission and the wind power industry that have no enforcement provisions.
“I’ve been a supporter of wind energy and of the Rendell administration’s push for alternative energy sources, but that support has evaporated because of proposals to put wind turbines in pristine areas with virtually no regulation, and Shaffer is an example of this,” said Kim Moore, of Windber, Somerset County. “This community is fighting for its mountain, and we’re angry about the project.”
That anger was palpable last week at a state Department of Environmental Protection public hearing on a water control and sedimentation permit that Gamesa needs to start building turbine support pads along the ridge and 18 miles of connecting gravel roads and transmission lines. The permit is required because the turbines are in a watershed containing the exceptional value streams.
More than 500 people packed into the hot gymnasium of Shade-Central City High School for a presentation by Gamesa officials, followed by almost three hours of testimony from 41 speakers, all but a handful opposed to the project.
Emotions are so high that the DEP asked state police to back up local officers providing security at the hearing. The project’s supporters were limited to Gamesa officials and a vocal group of 60 yellow-shirted United Steelworkers members employed at Gamesa’s manufacturing plant in Ebensburg, Cambria County.
“The men and women who live on the Allegheny Plateau have an immensely strong sense of place,” said Dennis McNair of Johnstown, who called wind energy companies “powerful and influential carpetbaggers.”
Gamesa sought to allay concerns in its presentation by reviewing its own studies of the project site that show no adverse impacts to bats, birds, rattlesnakes, groundwater or streams. Tim Vought, Gamesa’s project developer, also noted that the proposal already has been altered to move four of the 30 turbines 400 feet off the ridge to minimize bird impacts.
Mr. Vought said the Spanish wind power developer and turbine manufacturer lured to the state by Gov. Ed Rendell in 2004 wasn’t looking for a battle when it leased the Shaffer Mountain site.
“We’ve been looking for two years, seeking high elevation, good wind and limited housing nearby,” Mr. Vought said. “The public outcry just surfaced a couple of months ago. We never expected to be picking a fight.”
That expectation was a result of Gamesa’s experience just 15 miles north of Shaffer Mountain with its project atop Blue Knob Mountain, along the Cambria, Blair and Bedford county lines. Forty of an eventual 90 wind turbines in what Gamesa calls its Allegheny Ridge Project are up and turning.
Although part of that project is in the Bens Creek Watershed, a segment of which has been designated as an exceptional value stream, only light opposition was encountered and that has turned into acceptance of the project, according to Ellen Lutz, director of development for Gamesa’s Atlantic region.
“We have the experience to develop these projects in exceptional value watersheds without hurting the streams one iota,” Ms. Lutz said. “We’re building three times as many windmills there, and there’s been no change in the water quality It’s a completely baseless fear.”
“They took care to do it right,” said Dennis Beck, secretary of the Portage Municipal Water Authority, which has wells in one of the project watersheds. “They knew they wanted to do more in the state and they knew if they screwed it up, they were done.”
Rick Lehman, one of Gamesa’s USW employees who attended the hearing, said he wasn’t swayed by the project opponents.
“I’d like a windmill in my back yard,” said the Johnstown resident. “It’s better that than burning Osama’s oil.”
But John “Jack” Buchan, who owns 500 acres in Bedford County adjacent to the proposed Shaffer Mountain project, said there’s a better location for the wind turbines: a reclaimed surface mine site about three-quarters of a mile off the Allegheny Front ridge. He said it is clear of trees and has good, steady winds.
Melissa Reckner, a resident of Windber and a board member of the Stonycreek-Conemaugh River Improvement Project, said her organization likes wind energy but is “hesitant to see a green energy project damage one of the area’s actual green areas.”
She said studies of wind power development potential on reclaimed mine land should be made public if they exist, and if they do not, should be done before turbines are built on Shaffer Mountain.
“This is clearly a reasonable alternative to alleviate stressing these remarkable streams and the landscape they have created,” she said.
Although Gamesa officials said they are wary of reclaimed surface mine sites because of soil stability concerns, such sites can be used. The Freedom Wind Energy project in Patton, Cambria County, will build 40 turbines on a reclaimed strip mine.
Two DEP technical reviews and possibly two plan revisions by Gamesa must take place before a final decision is made on a permit, almost certainly not before early next year.
The public comment period on the permit runs until Sept. 28. Comments can be sent to Bob Scheib, DEP Southwest Regional Office, 400 Waterfront Drive, Pittsburgh 15222, or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
By Don Hopey
4 September 2007
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