Debate over putting wind turbines on Rattlesnake Mountain appears to be maturing faster than plans for the project itself.
A Pasco man has plunked down $188 to reserve a room at the Richland Community Center for a Saturday meeting at 10 a.m. to organize opposition to a proposal to develop a wind farm on the iconic mountain.
“There’s a place for windmills but I don’t think Rattlesnake is the place for them,” Patrick Guettner said.
But landowners on the mountain, including the state Department of Natural Resources, say it’s unlikely the turbines could be seen from the Tri-Cities. And they don’t want Tri-Citians telling them how to manage their land.
“For some reason they think Rattlesnake belongs to them,” said Neal Ice, who owns 5,000 acres of wheat land on the mountain but so far is not participating in the project. “It belongs to us.”
It’s not clear how advanced plans are for the project. Northwest Wind Partners LLC spokesman Chad Ross declined to discuss project specifics, saying, “We’re at a point where we don’t know anything.”
It appears Rick Anderson is the single-largest participating landowner in the project. His land on the western slopes of Rattlesnake Mountain would have 35 to 50 turbines.
Anderson’s family has farmed nearly 20,000 acres of wheat and rangeland northeast of Sunnyside since 1905. The family’s fourth generation is beginning to take over the farm.
“The big attraction for us is it’s going to make it possible for us to keep the ranch in the family,” he said. “The way agriculture is anymore, it’s getting harder and harder to retain some of these acreages.”
Anderson said he understands why some believe wind turbines are visual pollution, but notes his land can’t be seen from the Tri-Cities. It’ll be most visible in the Yakima Valley.
“I think they’ll get used to it,” he said.
To the east, Ice says he and his neighbors generally aren’t interested in participating despite the royalties it would bring them.
“Most of us don’t want to see them. We flat wouldn’t do it,” he said. “They’re a money-making project but it comes down to it, do you want to live with them on your land?”
Ice, though, says he has no objection to Anderson putting turbines on his property and takes exception to Tri-Citians who do. “This end of the county is on the short end of the stick anyway,” he said.
“We always felt the Tri-Cities is against the wind farm because they’re against anything that is a threat to nuclear power,” Anderson said.
Guettner said Rattlesnake Mountain may be an ideal spot for wind turbines, but not one the public is likely to accept. “I feel like there’s a supermajority of people who feel the way I do,” he said. “I think it’s time we marshal these people.”
He hopes his meeting will draw opponents of the wind project and those who want to open the mountain to more public access. Access is an issue Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has been talking about this year.
Generally, the northeast slope of the mountain facing Hanford is under federal control and much of the southwest slope is privately owned. There is no public access.
Guettner envisions a grassroots effort similar to the one that put 574 acres atop Badger Mountain in public ownership in 2005. He envisions hiking and biking trails, a planetarium and perhaps a visitors center.
“I think it would be a great tourist draw,” he said.
Others also have concerns about the project. The Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society is worried wind turbines anywhere on the mountain would threaten bird species taking refuge in the increasingly unique shrub-steppe of the Hanford Reach National Monument.
Rick Leaumont, Audubon’s conservation committee chairman, said about 238 bird species have been documented in the area. He said they are regularly coming and going to and from the monument, often crossing the mountain.
“Any location on the mountain would be a problem,” he said. “It’s like an airport.”
Also of concern are vibration-sensitive experiments being conducted at the nearby Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory and Battelle Gravitational Physics Laboratory. They alone could undo the wind project if it’s determined spinning wind turbines would disrupt the multimillion-dollar facilities.
However, it’s not clear how effective local opposition to the project will be. Ellensburg area residents loudly objected to the controversial Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project, which county commissioners rejected after the developer dropped negotiations over setbacks from adjacent landowners.
Jim Luce, chairman of the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, later dismissed those complaints because “such objections could only be resolved by cancellation of the project.”
Rather than lose the wind project while utilities are scrambling to meet new clean energy mandates, the council recommended Gov. Chris Gregoire preempt the county’s decision. Gregoire approved the project, a decision the county is appealing to the state Supreme Court.
State Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, who has a representative on the siting council, said recommending preemption was a no-brainer. And under similar circumstances, he said he’d make the same decision for Rattlesnake Mountain over local objections.
“If it’s important to this state to have alternative forms of energy, and this is an alternative form of energy, yes indeed I would recommend we continue to construct it,” he said.
He called Kittitas County commissioners’ rejection of the project a “political decision” made in response to pressure from their constituents.
The state’s preemption could make it difficult for Benton County commissioners to reject the Rattlesnake project. Proponents could just appeal to the state siting council.
“My initial concern is if the state is going to make us go through the permitting process when they’re going to preempt us anyway,” said Leo Bowman, Benton commission chairman. “That’s a major concern I have. That seems like a waste of time.”
By Chris Mulick
Herald Olympia Bureau
1 November 2007