If the burgeoning wind energy industry in Pennsylvania faces a turning-point battle, it just might occur on Shaffer Mountain in Somerset County.
Hundreds of nearby residents are fighting plans by Gamesa, a Spanish wind-energy developer, to build turbines atop the mountain. Gamesa has leased 10,000 acres of wilderness from Berwind Corp. of Philadelphia.
Anti-Gamesa yard signs have popped up in towns such as Central City, Cairnbrook and Windber. More than 600 residents, most of them opposed to the wind farm, packed a hearing on the project last month at Shade High School in Cairnbrook.
“I am not against windmill power,” said Rudy Chelednik of Cairnbrook. “But I am against tearing apart beautiful Shaffer Mountain.”
Opponents consider the state Department of Environmental Protection to be as much an enemy as Gamesa. They point to the role of Gov. Ed Rendell and DEP Secretary Kathleen McGinty in bringing the company to the state.
Tomorrow, the Legislature begins a special session on energy. Rendell, in a speech on Sept. 24, will ask for creation of an $850 million fund that would, among other things, provide financial help to renewable energy companies such as Gamesa.
The 30 Gamesa G87 turbines, each 404 feet tall, would be widely visible as they simultaneously produce clean energy and remove the illusion of wilderness for those trekking the thick woods on Shaffer Mountain or fishing in its streams.
Gamesa insists none of the mountain’s special qualities would be harmed.
Residents wonder why the company won’t consider an alternative site a mile away – a former strip mine reclaimed years ago with Philadelphia sewage sludge. It is also owned by Berwind Corp.
Gamesa says the alternative site doesn’t have as much wind as the Allegheny Front ridge tops it covets, because it is several hundred feet lower in elevation.
“Shaffer Mountain is an excellent place for a wind farm to be built,” said Ellen Lutz, development director at Gamesa’s office in Philadelphia. “We have been doing this for 20 years. We can sense when it is the right place for a wind farm.”
That Shaffer Mountain survives in a relatively untrammeled state today is a tribute to Berwind Corp., whose offices are literally just around the corner from Gamesa’s in Philadelphia.
A century-old, diversified family firm with extensive coal-mining interests, Berwind also owns Elmer’s Glue and Krazy Glue. But it is best known in Somerset County as a land owner.
Berwind owns 400 million tons of coal reserves and 150 million board feet of timber in Pennsylvania and three other states. Shaffer Mountain is part of that portfolio. The firm has culled lumber from parts of the mountain.
Local residents say the company has been good about allowing them to hunt, fish and hike on Shaffer Mountain. They almost claim it as their own.
Bryan Ronck is president and CEO of Berwind Natural Resources, the company’s land-management division. He declined to comment.
Shaffer Mountain came to Gamesa’s attention as part of a portfolio of potential wind-farm sites assembled by McLean Energy Partners LLC of McLean, Va.
“[Gamesa] asked us to find 25 sites in the mid-Atlantic region that could be developed into projects of 25 megawatts or larger,” said Richard Curry, president and CEO of McLean Energy.
Pennsylvania wind farm “prospectors,” as they are called, look first for the windiest areas, usually above 2,000 feet elevation. Curry said he looks for “wind signs,” such as evergreen trees stunted on the windward side, then erects a meteorological or “met” tower for a year of wind measurements.
He has done these studies throughout the region, including one near the Flight 93 impact site outside Shanksville that was abandoned after Sept. 11, 2001.
“What was intriguing about [Shaffer Mountain] was the rapid drop-off to the east,” he said. “The wind gets to the edge and gains acceleration.”
Birds love the wind, too. Allegheny Hawk Watch has an observatory near the project site where volunteers count passing raptors in season, as many as 14,000 per week. Last fall, 224 golden eagles were spotted.
The risk to birds led the Pennsylvania Game Commission to issue an advisory letter to another Gamesa consultant on June 11 listing what it doesn’t like about the Shaffer Mountain site.
Wind prospectors also look at the distance to existing electrical transmission lines and substations, Curry said, and how easy it would be to get equipment to the construction site.
Gamesa hasn’t made much progress on the transmission line, according to FirstEnergy Corp., which would build it, and Somerset Rural Electric Cooperative, which would lease some of its poles.
Richard S. Bauer, general manager of the Somerset co-op, said work appeared to stop after public opposition erupted.
“They’ve put things on hold,” he said.
Although four citizens’ organizations are fighting the Shaffer Mountain wind farm, the key opponent is Jack Buchen, a Johnstown insurance underwriter. He has spent thousands of dollars of his own money.
Because of Buchen and other donors, two lawyers from the Tucker, Arensburg firm in Pittsburgh are involved in the war against the wind farm, an inestimable aid in leveling the playing field. Many citizen environmental groups have to appeal for free legal help and often don’t get it.
Buchen owns 500 undeveloped acres on Shaffer Mountain that he uses for relaxation. He has a long association with the mountain.
“I lived in public housing as a kid,” Buchen said. “Every weekend, my uncles took me up there. They’d drop me off in the woods with a compass and a map and let me find my way out.”
During an interview on Aug. 29, he was pumped about the turnout at the hearing in Cairnbrook the night before.
The hearing was on Gamesa’s request for an erosion and sedimentation permit, the only aspect of wind farms regulated by the state DEP.
“We had five Ph.D.s!” Buchen exclaimed, referring to some of the speakers against the wind farm. Most of them have ties to the area and came at their own expense because of their love of the mountain, he said.
About 40 yellow-shirted United Steelworkers union members who work at the Gamesa blade factory in Ebensburg were among the few supporters. They came on a bus and hooted back at wind farm opponents.
“We all came voluntarily to show our support,” said Chuck Bagley, unit grievance steward for the Ebensburg workers.
Critics blame Rendell and McGinty for the interest in the mountain.
“Gov. Rendell wants to be the next U.S. energy czar,” said Joe Cominsky, echoing common sentiments in the area. “Katie McGinty went to Spain and cut the deal to keep Gamesa from going to Texas.”
They wonder why DEP is not joining them in their fight to save the mountain.
“DEP needs to quit being a facilitator and advocate for the wind industry,” Buchen said at the Aug. 28 hearing, to wild applause.
DEP acknowledges that it summoned police that night to force removal of anti-wind farm exhibits and signs from the building where the hearing was being held. Gamesa’s exhibits were not touched.
During the hearing, there were catcalls of “Go back to Spain!” and other taunts. A DEP official threatened to have police remove the hecklers.
“If there is any question if DEP is not doing its job because it is Gamesa, the answer is no,” said Michael Smith, DEP director of communications.
Gamesa remains confident:
Gamesa does not see itself at war, said Ellen Lutz, director of development in the company’s Philadelphia office. She said sound science will carry the day.
“We’re not fighting,” she said. “It may look that way to you. There are a certain number of people who are loud and aggressive in their tactics. Their tactics are theatrical. We continually hear from the community that the majority of people are supportive.”
The company regularly argues that Shaffer Mountain is damaged goods, ravaged by timber cutting and gypsy moths, while at the same time saying that its environmental controls will prevent damage to the mountain.
Lutz, for example, said use of four-wheelers has caused erosion and sedimentation into the Exceptional Value streams in the area, but also said use of all-terrain vehicles still will be allowed on Gamesa’s 10,000 leased acres. Exceptional Value streams are considered the best-quality streams in the state.
Michael Peck, a senior communications consultant for Gamesa, said the company is counting on the “political center” to save the Shaffer Mountain project.
Gamesa has hired former Republican state Sen. Robert Jubelirer of Altoona to be its lobbyist in Harrisburg.
“He’s been most helpful to us. He’s a wise person, he sees both sides of the issue, and he’s a temperate, seasoned professional,” Peck said.
Ceisler Jubelirer, a public relations firm in which Jubelirer’s son Jeff is a principal, is also doing work for Gamesa. Kurt Knaus, former DEP press secretary, handles the Gamesa account.
Peck heaped praise on McGinty as “talented and energetic,” and said Rendell “is committed to economic development. We felt Pennsylvania was the right place.”
He reserved his greatest scorn for the “well-funded” opponents of the Shaffer Mountain project who, he suggested, are intimidating residents into putting anti-Gamesa signs in their yards.
“I get emotional because of the tactics they’ve used,” he said. “We’ve never confronted before such an unrelenting barrage of misinformation and untruths and distortions.”
Buchen laughed away Peck’s intimidation charge. “That’s unbelievable,” he said. “People are calling me and asking for the signs and I don’t have them.”
He said Gamesa’s connection with state government is intimidating people.
A spiritual place:
There is a reason people are drawn to places like Shaffer Mountain, according to Erik Foley, director of the Renewable Energy Center at St. Francis University in Loretto.
“Mountains are spiritual places,” he said. “Mountains are about wildness. Our souls need that. There need to be places where there are no wind turbines or coal-fired plants or strip malls.”
David Sewak, who lives on Shaffer Mountain and works to restore regional streams for Trout Unlimited, said he doesn’t want to see more trout streams wrecked by energy projects.
“We’re still in the process of cleaning up from the last century of energy projects,” Sewak said. “The woods and streams of Shaffer Mountain are one of the last good places in the region.”
Another resident of Shaffer Mountain, John Kott, spoke of the potentially damaging effects of climate change on Pennsylvania and the world, but said wind turbines aren’t the answer.
“Does it make sense to flatten our ridge tops and destroy our forests to fight global warming?” he asked.
By David DeKok
Of The Patriot-News
16 September 2007