FRANKLIN, W.Va. – When Larry Thomas submitted a request for information on a pending wind energy project in Pendleton County, he was surprised to learn there was another utility being explored in his area.
Thomas is vice president of Friends of Beautiful Pendleton County, a loose-knit group of citizens who have spent the last three years opposing an industrial wind energy facility dubbed Liberty Gap, proposed for the county on Jack Mountain as it adjoins the Virginia state line in Highland.
When he received a reply from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about its correspondence with Liberty Gap, the information included a Nov. 16, 2007 letter from the agency to Wendy Tidhar of WEST, Inc. based in Cheyene, Wyo. WEST apparently represents an unnamed wind energy developer exploring a site on federal national forest property that would affect Pendleton and Hardy counties in West Virginia, and a portion of Rockingham County in Virginia.
What the USFWS told Tidhar, says Thomas, is promising for those who have for years stressed the need to protect the environment, birds and bats in particular, from a potential proliferation of wind turbine towers along the Appalachian Front.
The USFWS West Virginia Field Office told Tidhar, “We recommend that you consider alternative locations for this wind power facility because the proposed site is a high risk site, and wind power operations at this location pose a reasonable likelihood of take of species protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty, and Eagle Act.”
The USFWS, during Liberty Gap’s pursuit of state approval, had urged the developer to seek an incidental take permit and habitat conservation plan before it moved ahead with construction. At the time, the West Virginia Public Service Authority agreed that was a good idea, and Liberty Gap chose to pursue the federal programs. While the PSC ultimately rejected Liberty Gap’s application for a permit for other reasons, Thomas and FOBPC members believe the company will take up the process again, and this time will get all its ducks in a row in hopes of state approval.
The other, unknown developer represented by Tidhar appears to be getting the same urgent advice from USFWS about what happens if a company fails to heed the federal protections in place for these species.
USFWS told Tidhar that in this case, there is a known bald eagle next near the proposed utility, and the Eagle Act prohibits taking bald and golden eagles unless it does so pursuant to federal regulations. “In the case of bald eagles,” USFWS said, “take can only be authorized under a permit.”
The agency also pointed to other species at risk, including endangered Indiana bats in the area. “The mountain ridges of West Virginia may serve as corridors for bats migrating between their summer and winter habitats,” USFWS said. “Several bat species, including Indiana bats, are known to follow linear features in the landscape when traveling between roosting and foraging sites. However, Indiana bats are also known to cross high Appalachian ridges.”
Agency officials said the unknown wind utility is proposed along a mountain ridge in West Virginia “and could pose a risk to Indiana and Virginia beg-eared bats, as well as many non- endangered bat species foraging or migrating through the area. Since bats are long-lived and have low reproductive rates, high mortality levels could have serious impacts on populations.” The agency noted bat mortality at wind turbine sites in North America has been documented during summer foraging and migration. “An estimated 2,092 bats representing at least six species were reported killed between Aug. 18 and Nov 9 of 2003 at the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center located on Backbone Mountain in Tucker County, W.Va. An important field study conducted during 2004 É at the Mountaineer and Meyersdayle Wind Energy Centers found similar results. Both projects are located along ridges of the Appalachian plateau in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, respectively.”
The service recommended pre-construction studies and reviews of research data, and at least three years of monitoring the area.
Meanwhile in Highland County, Va., where the state’s first industrial wind energy has received the go-ahead from the State Corporation Commission, the developer’s attorney has stated an incidental take permit might be something it pursues. The project is designed for Allegheny Mountain, very near the Liberty Gap site, on one of the highest elevations in the region – 4,200 feet.
Thomas and FOBPC anticipate that at least for the Liberty Gap project, opposition will remain in Pendleton County, and the group may need as much as $250,000 to continue fighting the proposal if the company re-applies for a permit.
Thomas, on behalf of the organization, wrote a ninepage letter to the USDA to outline the concerns held by Pendleton citizens (see below). The federal agency is reviewing directives related to wind energy utility development, and FOBPC submitted its comments.
“Our comprehensive analysis started with the USDA Forest Service website and the Forest Service Mission, Motto, Vision and Guiding Principals,” he wrote. “We have concluded that it is impossible to justify any forest service decision to permit the industrialization of one acre of the 193 million acres, including the pristine mountain tops in the pristine national forests of Pendleton County, West Virginia, of the commons placed under its management by ‘We the People’ with industrial wind energy projects. It just doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit the Mission, It doesn’t fit the Motto, It doesn’t fit the Vision and it doesn’t fit the Guiding Principals.
“The current political wind is in favor of the development and energy interests, thereby significantly influencing the pressure on the natural environment,” he continued. “If the trend continues, how much of the national forest will remain when our fast expanding population will likely be desperate for a little breathing room in the future, 25, 50 and 100 years from today?”
BY ANNE ADAMS • STAFF WRITER
The Recorder, January 31, 2008
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