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The David and Goliath battle between industry and environmentalists for control of 23 miles of ridge tops continues today in Charleston when the state Supreme Court hears oral arguments for and against a proposed $300 million Greenbrier County windfarm.
In one corner is Chicago-based Invenergy, an international company that’s invested $2 million into the Beech Ridge Energy project which is slated to build 124 wind turbines around the Cold Knob mountain area.
Since its announcement in 2005, Beech Ridge’s projected 200 part-time and 20 full-time jobs, more than $600,000 in state and local taxes, plus its creation of 186 megawatts of “green” electricity free of fossil fuels, produce a win-win situation not only for the county, but a nation that’s starving for energy.
Supporting Beech Ridge today will be pulp and paper giant MeadWestVaco, which owns the majority of the land being leased to the windfarm, Appalachian Power, West Virginia-American Water Co., the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, West Virginia Telecommunications and Energy Coalition and West Virginia Building and Construction Trades Association.
Beech Ridge lawyers say the state Public Service Commission’s 2006 decision granting Beech Ridge a conditional building permit was thoroughly vetted after “thousands of pages of exhibits, 12 maps, dozens of witnesses, six days of testimony and two rounds of written briefs.”
This, Beech Ridge believes, leaves anti-windfarm opponents gasping for air.
“(They) largely focus on alleged procedural irregularities that, in the end, have no impact on the determination of this case,” Lee F. Feinburg, a Beech Ridge lawyer, wrote in one brief.
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In the opposing corner are the grassroots efforts of Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy and Jeffrey and Alcia Eisenbeiss, two groups that have been buzzsaws in Beech Ridge’s plans since day one.
The “not in my back yard” campaigns at first forecast a decrease in property values, the end of a $231 million tourism industry and the deaths of countless birds and bats for the future of Greenbrier County if the 400-foot-tall wind turbines were built.
However, many of their latest arguments have primarily focused on the actions, or inactions, of the PSC in giving Beech Ridge the green light. By granting the conditional permit before historical state agencies or federal wildlife agencies have signed off on the project is unfair to anyone opposing the project, opponents say. It also outsources the job that’s supposed to be done by the PSC itself, they say.
“The commission’s orders do not include adequate findings of fact or conclusions of law to reflect that the commission properly appraised and balanced the interests of, and potential social and environmental impacts to, the citizens and communities …,” MCRE lawyer Justin St. Clair wrote.
MCRE spokesman Dave Buhrman said Tuesday his organization has spent about $60,000 fighting the windfarm, mostly eaten up by legal fees.
The Eisenbeisses, on the other hand, have represented themselves in all of their legal actions, and spent hundreds of hours researching and writing legal documents. The Renick couple joined the fight after learning part of the windfarm project would be built on land that adjoins theirs.
In fact, Jeffrey has become so adept at studying the law he was mistaken for the real thing by one justice during his oral presentation to the high court last April.
“Denying and intentionally disregarding the interests of the public predisposes a conclusion in the interest of the applicant,” the couple wrote. “The Public Service Commission erred by not dismissing an application that failed to comply with rules on numerous facets.”
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Caught in the middle of this drama could be how the PSC is allowed to do business. A few of those siding with Beech Ridge aren’t doing it because of their positions on wind energy. West Virginia-American Water and others don’t want to see the high court “legislate from the bench” and throw out conditional permits.
Doing so, they said, would add millions of dollars in expenses for companies wanting to build new utility infrastructure in the state before they get any notice the state will allow their projects.
Last April, Justice Brent Benjamin asked a Beech Ridge lawyer if the PSC legally had the authority to conditionally grant permits.
“Is the PSC improperly giving (authority) to another state agency, one that doesn’t have the policy decision for the overall discretion of whether this project goes forward or not, and is that therefore not legal?” he asked.
“It appears to me that the PSC is overstepping its authority to delegate,” Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard replied.
By Christian Giggenbach
8 January 2008
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