The state Fish & Boat Commission has been responsible for ensuring that wind energy development does not harm water or aquatic life since corporations began erecting turbines in Pennsylvania.
But with the wind energy industry growing quickly – and showing no signs of letting up – Fish and Boat commissioners have decided to put the agency’s regulatory policy in writing.
The commissioners made the decision at their most recent meeting. They are accepting comments about the policy from the public.
The issue is more relevant in Somerset County than perhaps anywhere else in the state. Four wind farms are already online here, with two more to begin running by spring. Plans are in the works for at least two more wind farms – Airtricity is testing the viability of building 35 turbines in Stonycreek Township and Gamesa wants to build windmills on Shaffer Mountain.
The policy states that the commission’s staff will coordinate with local, state and federal regulatory agencies to review wind development in order to minimize and mitigate harmful impacts on fish, other aquatic life, reptiles, amphibians and their habitats.
The policy further states that when projects are being sited, the commission staff will work to avoid ecologically sensitive areas and threatened and endangered species. The commission will try to reduce habitat fragmentation and develop mitigation strategies for unavoidable impacts.
Turbine construction can affect waterways where they are most sensitive – at their headwaters, Fish and Boat Commissioner Len Lichvar said. Though many think of streams as running through valleys, most begin near ridgetops, he said.
“Anytime there’s encroachment on a ridgeline, you’re dealing with headwater issues,” Lichvar said. “If you have a problem where it begins, then you have a problem where it ends.”
Among the animals that the Fish & Boat Commission is charged with protecting, timber rattlesnakes stand the greatest chance of being adversely impacted by turbine construction, said John Arway, with Fish & Boat Commission’s environmental services division.
Timber rattlers are a candidate for listing on the state endangered species list. There are a limited number of dens in Pennsylvania where the snakes can live. Though the snakes can be moved to accommodate construction, doing so is Fish & Boat Commission’s least preferred alternative, Arway said.
“The science really doesn’t bode well for relocating rattlesnakes and them surviving,” he said.
So far, there have not been many conflicts between timber rattlesnake habitats and wind development, Arway said.
The agency also carefully looks at how construction can impact green salamanders and brook trout in small headwater streams, he said.
Fish & Boat reviews the projects in cooperation with the Department of Environmental Protection, which serves as the lead agency.
By Rob Gebhart
9 February 2008
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