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Counties need ridgeline protection — now

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has proposed regulations for a permit by rule for so-called “small wind energy projects.” The proposed regulations fall well short of satisfying the DEQ’s legislative mandate to “include conditions and standards necessary to protect the Commonwealth’s natural resources.”

The proposed PBR regulations were designed to implement legislation sponsored by State Senator Frank Wagner (Virginia Beach), noted for previously serving wind industry interests by attempting, among other failed maneuvers, to legislatively override local authority to make land-use decisions concerning wind projects. Sen. Wagner is now having more success with his PBR.

The first problem with both the legislation and the proposed regulations is the absurd definition of “small wind energy project,” which is specified as any wind project of less than 100 MW rated capacity. Today’s 2-MW turbines can be spaced at about seven turbines per mile of ridgeline. Under the new PBR, Virginia’s mountain counties may soon be facing a proliferation of 500-foot turbines, permitted in seven-mile increments with limited environmental review and mitigation requirements.

Another problem is the inevitable perception by local officials that their concerns about the adverse impacts of wind energy development can now be safely left to the DEQ. On the contrary, the PBR severely restricts DEQ authority.

If the limited requirements of the PBR are all met, then the DEQ must issue a permit within 90 days of permit application. The DEQ has no authority to deny a permit, and it has very limited authority to impose permit conditions or require environmental mitigation.

In the Virginia Register notice on the proposed regulations, the DEQ points to the need for a “clear … and efficient path for development of wind energy in Virginia,” and to illustrate the need, it cites the “nearly seven years” it took for the proposed, but not yet built, Highland New Wind Development project to obtain approval from the State Corporation Commission.

The DEQ failed, however, to acknowledge that during all those years, HNWD avoided environmental assessment, ignored agency requests for analysis and information, failed to produce a site plan, communicated almost exclusively through lawyers and hired spokesmen, and stirred-up huge and entrenched public opposition.

Much of the debate in the General Assembly leading up to passage of the PBR legislation centered on avoiding the protracted uncertainty associated with permitting HNWD. The proposed PBR regulations will accomplish just that, expedited permitting will be achieved, cost to developers will be reduced, and investors will face less risk – regardless of potential environmental and community impacts.

HNWD might wish it could apply for a new permit under the proposed PBR regulations. The SCC permit imposed precedent-setting (and investor-intimidating) wildlife monitoring and protection conditions. A permit from the DEQ under the PBR would be much less restrictive. But HNWD can’t apply for a permit from the DEQ; it already has a permit from the SCC.

At least for now, it seems that the remote and ecologically unique Laurel Fork area of Highland County, where HNWD seeks to build its 39 MW project, is protected. But less protection will now be provided to the other mountain ridges in our region that have been targeted for industrialscale wind energy development. It’s a real window of opportunity for the big wind companies like Invenergy, Iberdrola, and BP, who are presently mapping out their prospects.

Western Virginia counties would do well to enact ridgeline protection ordinances, and they should do so soon, before that option is taken away by Sen. Wagner and his colleagues.
Rick Webb
Mustoe, Va.