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New group formed to defend Shaffer Mountain

In a serene wooded setting, a state-recognized “exceptional value” trout stream winds cool and clear through the trees atop Shaffer Mountain, a Somerset County ridge, part of the Allegheny Front.

“You just have to see it,” Jack Buchan said.

“It speaks for itself.”

But, at the same time, it can’t.

So Buchan and others have formed a new group to defend it and decry siting 30 turbines atop the ridge, an important and unique bat and fish habitat and migratory path for raptors that hundreds come to watch.

It also is home to sensitive and rare habitats such as bogs and vernal ponds.

Members call themselves Sensible Wind Solutions and emphasize that they are not environmental extremists. They are not against wind power but are urging Gamesa Energy USA to consider another site, such as an old strip mine site about a mile away.

John Hanger, president of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, a group that has strongly supported wind-energy development in the state, disagreed.

The benefits of wind energy outweigh the costs of placing turbines on mountaintops, he said.

“Wind is not perfect,” he said. “But, it is much less damaging than all these other alternatives. It is much cleaner and more stable in price. The good Lord’s wind is free.”

Sensible Wind Solutions member Dr. Tom Dick – founder of the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society – said state and federal legislators should have been regulating where the wind industry is allowed to place its turbines.

That decision is left to individual municipalities, where leaders often have yet to encounter the wind industry.

“To me, it is the same as strip mining,” Dick said. “We were unregulated then, and now people are paying for it. Now, we are unregulated again.”

Dick, also founder of the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, said bald eagles are of major concern if moving turbines are placed in their paths and the landscape is changed.

Last year, hawk watch members counted 70 bald eagles and 222 golden eagles soaring over the mountain.

Also, fragmentation – which Dick said would be especially harmful atop the state’s continental divide – changes the composition of forest structure.

Building 18 miles of roads would lead to invasive plants and insects, he added.

“You are going to get a different type of forest,” Dick said.

The Pennsylvania Biological Survey, a group of scientists charged with advising the Pennsylvania Game Commission, has criticized the commission for low expectations from and cooperation from the wind industry.

“This is the antithesis of what the (Pennsylvania Game Commission) wants,” Dick said.

“That is why these kind of areas should be avoided,” he said. “These issues are not small issues.”

Instead, the group hopes Gamesa can move the project to the old mine.

Project manager Tim Vought said Gamesa has considered the site. A meteorological tower placed nearby measured wind both on the mountaintop and within a radius of a couple of miles.

The wind on the mining site is not strong enough to produce enough power to recover construction costs, Vought said, though he could not name specific measurements.

“It would be a significant loss in energy production,” he said.

Building the heavy turbines on the old strip mine would cost more, Vought added. A foundation would have to reach the pit of the old mine, he said.

“According to the analysis we have done, all I can tell you is it would be a significant drop in productivity,” he said.

But he emphasized that Gamesa’s researchers have found the mountaintop site to be optimal for the company’s plans.

“We have done extensive surveys on water and land use there,” Vought said.

“They are compatible. We will actually be able to improve the quality of the water.”

Yet building turbines on old mine sites is ideal but not always feasible, Hanger said.

“We think that is a great place to have a wind farm, but they need to be located where the wind is good,” he said.

As to a lack of state or federal siting guidelines, Hanger said those regulations should be enacted at a municipal level.

“Townships have a right to zone,” he said.

About half the state’s municipalities have such ordinances, he said.

In Somerset County, the county passed the first ordinance in the state that deals with wind-energy development.

Opponents have said the measure is not stringent enough. Shade Township supervisors also passed a township ordinance, but the Shaffer Mountain project would not have to follow it because plans were in place before supervisors voted.

By Kecia Bal

The Tribune-Democrat

22 September 2007