SOMERSET – The number of people turning out for a public hearing on the proposed Shaffer Mountain Wind Farm on Thursday night was a fraction of those at a similar hearing three years ago.
Absent this time were the signs opposing the project, the anger and the confrontational spirit that highlighted the August 2007 hearing by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
But the testimony bore a marked similarity to that of three years ago, with many of the nearly 60 people who spoke at Thursday’s Army Corps of Engineers hearing expressing the fear that the 30 turbines proposed by Gamesa Energy USA will be detrimental to the environment.
“This project really is not a good project,” Ogletown resident Dave Sewak told Col. William Graham, the hearing officer from the Army Corps’ Pittsburgh Division.
Sewak said he looks every day at windmills built near his home on abandoned strip mines, but Gamesa wants to build the two-megawatt turbines on pristine land that will impact high- quality streams with native brook trout.
“I think we’ve lost enough water around here to say it’s only a little bit of disturbance,” he said.
Gamesa has been pursuing permits for the Shaffer Mountain project planned for Shade and Ogle townships, Somerset County, and Napier Township, Bedford County, for more than three years, and from all indications the process is long from over.
The 1,600-acre project area will have what the Army Corps has described as minimal permanent impact on wetlands and streams, with the focus mostly in the Central City watershed.
While opponents among the approximately 150 people attending the hearing at Somerset Area High School were clearly in the majority, some residents, including Richard Bair of Johnstown, support the project.
Bair is upset by what he views as control of private property rights.
Bair, who owns property on Shaffer Mountain and has spent much of his life hunting the woods and fishing the streams, urged the Army Corps to look at the Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm in the Portage area to see a Gamesa project well done.
“I can tell you Gamesa did an exceptional job during construction. This wind farm is similar in many respects to the Shaffer Mountain Wind Farm,” Bair said in his testimony.
The permanent impact on wetlands as a result of the Shaffer Mountain project totals 12 feet by 48 feet, an area smaller than a home, Bair said.
Opponents voiced concerns about the potential impact to aquatic and wildlife with the loss of the wetlands and a portion of stream channel. But the greatest concern may be over the future of the Indiana bat, included on the federal list of endangered species and already under attack by the rapidly spreading disease known as white nose syndrome.
In written testimony to the Army Corps, Thomas Kunz, a biology professor at Boston University with a long list of studies and publications qualifying him as an expert on bats and their reproduction, said there is a high level of risk to the Indiana bat population at the proposed project site.
The location is routinely and heavily used as a roosting and foraging location, as well as a potential bat migration path, Kunz said.
In a recent study, the developer identified four Indiana bats, “which to my knowledge constitutes the most Indiana bats ever captured in pre-construction surveys by a wind developer,” Kunz said.
Similar concerns were expressed by organizers of the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, located on Shaffer Mountain, a site where people come to see eagles and hawks migrating along the ridge.
Watch members are especially concerned about the impact the turbines could have on the Sawhet owl, which uses the mountain range as a major migration corridor in the state.
The owl flies at a height most likely to impact with the moving paddles of the turbines, said Tom Dick, a veterinarian from Somerset County.
“These are owls that are particularly vulnerable to the turbines,” he said.
Also of concern is the potential harm the turbines may cause the endangered eastern golden eagle, a loss that could result in a collapse of the population, he said.
Laura Jackson, founder of Save Our Allegheny Ridges, believes many people think the Shaffer Mountain project is no longer a threat because it has been so long in the permitting process.
“This has been an issue that has dragged on for three years. Nothing’s happened and a lot of people think the project is dead,” said Jackson, an opponent of the turbines. “But it’s not done.”
Scott Hans, regional Army Corps chief for the Pittsburgh Division, said the testimony presented Thursday will be evaluated as part of the review of the Gamesa permit application.
The goal is to have a response within 120 days of the public notice of the hearing and the clock started on July 12, he said.
The Army Corps will continue to receive written comment on the application until Aug. 23.
Comments can be sent to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh Division, 1000 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh, Pa., 15222-4186 or electronically to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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