If the State Corporation Commission hearing examiner’s report is any indication, Highland New Wind Development is likely to receive the state permit it needs to build Virginia’s first industrial wind energy plant in Highland County. The report draws the right conclusions on some key points concerning conditions the SCC should place on that permit, but those are unlikely to satisfy most of the county residents who are opposed to the facility being located here.
Alexander Skirpan, the hearing examiner, made several recommendations most will appreciate, including requiring mitigation and monitoring throughout the life of the project as needed. Furthermore, he rightly recommends the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries be in charge of those studies and reviews as they impact wildlife, and should enjoy unlimited access to conduct them.
But it’s the way HNWD’s expenses for those studies are capped that strikes us as ineffectual.
Instead of placing dollar-amount caps on the money HNWD must spend on monitoring and mitigation, Skirpan uses a percentage of the company’s profits to determine the cap on those expenses. In other words, the less money the project makes, the less it will have to spend on the extra studies it doesn’t believe the project needs.
Given how easy it is for corporate interests to skew their financials in all kinds of ways, this seems to open the door for some fancy calculating. Should the developer want to reduce expenses, it simply needs to show a reduction in earnings. Any good accountant could make that work.
Then, if birds and bats and endangered species are suddenly killed at alarming rates, as predicted by most experts, HNWD would still only have to pay this percentage of profit for the damage – an amount Skirpan puts at roughly 2.6 percent of earnings per year. If the project starts to lose money after its third year, for example, then what? Mac McBride’s company gets a tax break, but it doesn’t undo the damage to our delicate ecosystem.
Putting DGIF in charge of watching over the wildlife instead of a technical advisory committee as suggested by HNWD was an essential move. DGIF can, and does, take its mission to protect Virginia species very seriously, even though it may not always get the state budget it needs to accomplish this task. In this case, DGIF officials have shown the utmost care in determining the potential effects of these 20-some, 400-foot towers in spite of enormous pressure to back off from its stance.
A bit of wrangling between the agency and the developer is likely to occur over how birds and bats should be studied at the utility, but SCC will retain the authority to step in if things go awry in that relationship.
None of this bodes well for the likes of Bear Mountain Farm and Retreat or neighbors who own property near the project site. The disruption to their lives will be impossible to calculate and no amount of money or mitigation will make this utility an acceptable part of their daily landscape. But most still retain hope the project will never come to fruition. Hurdles remain. Investors will be wary of HNWD’s decision to ignore strong advice about getting a habitat conservation plan and incidental take permit for endangered species. There are still lawyers waiting in the wings for the first time one of those raptors is found dead at the foot of a wind tower. Without taking the best steps to mitigate its own financial outlook, HNWD may not be able to get backing it needs.
The Recorder: Editorial 10/18/07
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