With relatively undisturbed mountain forests and high-quality streams running into local watersheds, Blue Knob and Shaffer mountains have much in common.
There is one striking difference, though. While there are 40 towering Allegheny Ridge windmills scattered atop Blue Knob on the Blair and Cambria line, residents from Shaffer Mountain in northern Somerset and western Bedford counties seem to be doing all they can to keep turbines off their ridgetop.
“This project is ill-conceived and [Gamesa Energy] keeps pushing it anyway,” said Joe Cominsky of Windber, one of the project’s most vocal opponents. “Big business and big government are going to destroy Shaffer Mountain.”
Gamesa wants to build 30 to 33 of the electricity-producing windmills on top of Shaffer Mountain in Ogle, Shade and Napier townships.
Gamesa officials insist they make sure the mountain and its wildlife aren’t negatively impacted. They point to the nearly half-complete Allegheny Ridge wind project as proof they can back up what they say.
They’ve hit a wall of resistance from hundreds of residents in the Shaffer Mountain area, who worry that the project will threaten wildlife and scar a mountain that has managed to stay relatively untouched by development and industry.
Shaffer Mountain project opponents point to Piney Run and Clear Shade Creek – high-quality streams that are home to native trout populations and feed into the Windber area watershed.
The group claims they are two of the more than 100 streams the state Department of Environmental Protection has designated as “exceptional value” – the best of the best, which comprises only 2 percent of the state’s 83,000 stream miles.
It’s not the windmills that will destroy the streams but the work required to build them, Cominsky admits.
“I’ve been in the construction business for 35 years. When you’re building roads on ridges, bringing down trees, I know what it does,” Cominsky said.
Gamesa officials point to an unnamed tributary of Bens Creek near the Allegheny Ridge project that they say is 1,000 feet from the project area. It’s also an exceptional value stream and remains healthy, officials said during a recent tour of the site.
The project is near the Portage Area reservoir, too.
“We’ve taken every step to make sure water quality wouldn’t be impacted,” said Ray Bowman, vice-president of the Portage Area Water Authority, which is leasing land to Gamesa where eight turbines since have been constructed. “That is still our top priority.”
Birds and bats
The safety of birds and bats is perhaps the most common concern wind farms bring. Atop Shaffer Mountain, the Indiana bat, hawks and eagles are common sights, residents say.
The Allegheny Hawk Watch has an observatory near the planned project site and thousands of raptors are spotted weekly, the group’s Web site states.
Matt Dallas, spokesman for Babcock & Brown, the group that will operate the Allegheny Wind Farm, said lessons have been learned from mistakes made in West Coast wind farms built in the 1980s.
For example, transmission lines – a common killer for bats and birds – now are buried underground, he added. There’s a long list of studies on birds, bats and rattlesnakes to go through before turbine locations are determined.
Similar tests were done for the Indiana bat and eagles on the Allegheny Ridge, Dallas said. And while there appear to be more hawks flying over Shaffer Mountain, tests are being done to ensure turbines are placed where the birds won’t be in danger, Gamesa officials added.
The mountain itself
Cominsky’s family farm is in the center of the Shaffer Mountain project site.
Like other local opponents – among them, Johnstown’s Jack Buchan – the peace and quiet the mountain offers may be the biggest reason he’s fighting Gamesa.
“That farm is going to be 100 years old,” Cominsky said, claiming Gamesa offered him $5,000 annually for each turbine placed on his land, but he declined. “This land has hardly been touched besides some timbering here and there. Once this land is decimated, it won’t be better than anywhere else.”
Cominsky shudders at the thought of seeing the mountainscape “ruined” with scattered wind towers – in this case, ones 400 feet high.
The Shaffer Mountain opposition group says the wind farm could be placed elsewhere, pointing to a Berwind-owned strip mine less than two miles away.
But Gamesa project developer Tim Vought said recently the site elevation isn’t high enough for the steady winds the turbines require.
“I don’t know what the grounds for the opposition to [the Shaffer Mountain project] are. Maybe they are just hesitant to see change,” he said.
If anything, the forests on Allegheny Ridge may be more pristine than the forests on Shaffer Mountain, said Michael Barton Jr., a Sidman forester who worked with the Portage Area Water Authority on Allegheny Ridge when Gamesa first unveiled plans for turbines there.
He’s now doing consulting for Gamesa on the Shaffer Mountain project. While he says both have similar histories, elevations (about 2,700 feet) and wildlife, there has been more trouble with gypsy moths and “aggressive clear-cutting” in that area of Somerset County.
“We’re planting vegetation to enhance the wildlife habitats,” Vought said. “We have a commitment with Berwind, the property owner, that the property will go back to the exact same land use when we’re done.”
“They talk like they are going to improve Shaffer Mountain,” Cominsky said. “It’s the way God made it. How can you improve that?”
Allegheny Ridge farm
In Cambria and Blair counties, truck traffic has been the biggest concern among residents near the project area. Township officials in Washington and Cresson townships have approached Gamesa in the past year to fix roads that construction crews crumbled with heavy haulers.
So far, Gamesa has been a pretty good neighbor, township supervisors in Portage, Washington and Cresson townships said in recent weeks.
“As far as turbines coming,” Cresson Township Chairman Scott Decoskey said, “we’ve had no calls … no real complaints.”
Don Parks of Portage Township lives less than three miles from the Allegheny Ridge farm. Gamesa’s “super” trucks, which carry turbine blades nearly half as long as a football field, regularly pass by his home.
“They’re producing clean energy and they’re giving people jobs,” he said. “So why complain?”
Another Portage Township resident, Joe Franey, also has supported the project. He has reservations now, though, because while construction has continued, it has cut off generations-old hunting land that he and friends have used on the mountain.
“Hopefully, it doesn’t continue. You can’t go anywhere now without running into no trespassing signs,” he said. “I’m all for the windmills, but I’m not for that.”
Opponents say Gamesa’s plant in Cambria Township, which employs more than 260 people, has tempered opposition in Cambria County.
Cominsky thinks the support for the Allegheny Ridge farm will die “once they’ve got 90 turbines up there spinning.”
“Maybe people up there are just more complacent,” he said. “Down here, we’re tired of being dumped on. We’ve had a garbage dump dropped on us, sludge dumped on us [in Cairnbrook] and now this. … We’re tired of being lied to.”
As anti-Gamesa billboards and lawn signs are popping up all over northern Somerset County, Cominsky says his group is growing and that they’ve just begun to fight.
Vought said Gamesa is pressing on, as well. They’ve hired former Republican state Sen. Robert Jubelirer as their lobbyist in Harrisburg.
Meanwhile, Gamesa continues working through studies and the permit process. If all goes well for them, site work and construction could begin next year.
“What happens on our mountain will dictate the placement for all of Pennsylvania. If they destroy this area, they can destroy any area,” Cominsky said. “But we’re not going to let that happen. We’re just getting started.”
By David Hurst
23 September 2007
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