Saturday morning at the Spring Review and Sustainable Fair: University of Virginia research scientist Rick Webb began his presentation on wind energy pros and cons and was promptly interrupted. Through a thicket of questions and counter-questions he made his way to the next point. New questions arose. Later points were anticipated. Divergent claims were made. Finally, a frustrated majority demanded that questions wait until Rick had finished. So he did, and for long afterwards remained at the front of the Davis and Elkins College lecture hall, cheerfully responding to antagonists, supporters, reporters, and the just plain curious who had him surrounded.
I tried to recall when I had first seen Rick in the eye of a controversy. Was it in Cowen, in Webster County, where his Mountain Stream Monitors had challenged strip mine permits, and at the end of a public hearing a crowd of angry coal miners mobbed him? TV lights snapped back on as a crew of state police and sheriff’s deputies waded in to stop the assault. Or was it in West Virginia Wesleyan’s student union,where at a hearing on an environmental impact statement on mining in the Buckhannon River watershed, Rick’s de facto bodyguard, the late Highlands Conservancy board member Bard Montgomery, threw a miner who’d attacked Rick to the floor? Or it might have been in the east wing of the Capitol, in the politer company of the Supreme Court of Appeals, where my run of the mill criminal case was followed by a coal company’s libel suit against Rick for describing their pollution of that same Buckhannon River.
Those events date back to the end of the Seventies and beginning of the Eighties. Then Rick and his family moved from their Braxton County farm, which had been undermined by another coal company, to Elkins, where Susan taught our kids and Rick finished his college work at Davis and Elkins. He went on to the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, Susan taught in public schools in Charlottesville, and we mostly followed each other’s lives second-hand. Hard to believe he was now a graying grandfather; the same soft-spoken equanimity coexisted with the same persistence.
Rick coordinates the long-term Shenandoah Watershed Study and other studies of the effects of air pollution on streams in the central Appalachian Mountains. He’s all too familiar with the direct and indirect damage coal has done and continues to do. But as a scientist and a citizen, he doesn’t believe that wind should get a free ride. We ought to look at the data, weigh the costs and benefits. Otherwise, some years down the road, we might realize that we’d been fooled again, and this so-called “green” energy had trashed our remnant wild areas, cost us a bundle, and distracted us from real solutions.
Since he began making that case several years ago, a couple of things have happened. Virginia’s then-Governor appointed a Wind Energy Collaborative (VWEC) to study the potential impacts of wind energy development in the commonwealth. Dominated by industry, the VWEC shunned its Environmental Working Group, on which Rick served with three others, and censored their report. The full Landscape Classification System (2005) and many other relevant documents can be found at www.vawind.org. The censored version, containing about 10% of the original and deleting all references to theneed for environmental assessment—the Environmental Working Group’s original purpose—was handed to the Governor.
Last year, Virginia’s State Corporation Commission ruled on the application of Highland New Wind Development for a project west of Monterey, near the West Virginia border. The commission seemed to have learned from our state’s experience as well as Rick’s and others’ testimony. Strict requirements for monitoring wildlife impacts were coupled with a bond for the cost of removing the turbines if the project could not meet its conditions, that is, “if the carnage continue[d].”
So far, that developer has not moved forward on the ground; instead, it has attempted to change the rules by removing the Corporation Commission’s jurisdiction over such projects. A bill to accomplish that is stuck in the Virginia Senate.
Rick recently served on a National Research Council committee investigating the environmental impacts of wind energy. When they asked for data to support the industry’s figures of fossil fuel consumption offset by wind turbines, they were told that the information was “proprietary.” Professional skepticism remained unabated. A cost-benefit summary based on the commission’s report is on the Virginia Wind website.
As we have seen, the wind energy industry is wary of cost-benefit comparisons, environmental assessments, concerns about birds or bats or forest fragmentation. They are working hard to “brand” the shiny three-bladed turbines as our key to a clean green future. Since Rick won’t shut up about the costs and questions the benefits, they have tried to brand him as pro-coal. But his professional career has always involved calling coal to account. (One recent example was his testimony on the consequences of Illinois Power’s sulfur emissions for aquatic resources in the central Appalachians.)
His public presentations on wind, though contentious, haven’t led to assaults. In the D&E hall on that Spring Saturday most of us didn’t notice we were being taped. In fact, two cameras were running— knowing the industry’s agents had begun to follow him around, looking for misstatements they might use to their advantage, Rick kept a record for himself.
By Hugh Rogers
From the Heart of the Highlands
8 May 2008
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