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Archaeology or anarchy? Critics raise eyebrows over plowing at Cape Vincent wind sites

CAPE VINCENT – One man’s archaeological study is another man’s construction site prep work.

The sites for wind turbines, access roads and an electrical substation in the proposed Cape Vincent Wind Farm are being plowed up, action that wind power opponents say pre-empts the environmental review process, while the developer says it is part of that process.

“In the areas where we have open fields, we’re plowing them,” said James H. Madden, project manager for developer BP Alternative Energy. “We know where the facility areas are and as part of the archaeological study, we have the option of doing shovel tests or, where previously farmed, plowing, to make it easier to do the work.”

All of the access road, electrical collection line and substation sites will undergo archaeological study in several weeks. In areas with brush, the study will use shovel tests.

Mr. Madden said all of the roughly 85 turbine sites under a new array plan will be tested. The new layout will be unveiled with the supplemental draft environmental impact statement.

The other wind power developer in Cape Vincent, Acciona Wind Energy USA, used shovel tests and stakes on its St. Lawrence Wind Farm, he said.

“We have to site every turbine, every road and the collection system really specifically,” he said. “It’s not preparation for construction.”

The developer signed contracts with some landowners in the project to plow their and neighboring properties. For an effective survey, they try to turn over 8 to 10 inches, but in many spots the soil is shallower than that, Mr. Madden said.

This method allows the contracted archaeological firm simply to walk along the sites, looking for artifacts. It’s less expensive than shovel tests.

“It’s still several hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Mr. Madden said. “It’s one of the most expensive studies. … It really makes sense to do it this way.”

But wind power critics in the town remain suspicious.

“It appears they’re doing considerable disturbance to the land when the FEIS is supposed to look into those impacts,” said Arthur D. Pundt, a resident who has tracked and argued against wind power development in the town since 2006.

The final environmental impact statement is the last step in the state environmental quality review process.

“This is going to be a gray area the company is trying to work,” he said.

State Department of Environmental Conservation officials are not concerned about the work.

“We do not have any information to indicate this would be a violation of DEC permits or SEQR,” spokeswoman Maureen F. Wren said.

The supplemental statement will tell DEC what the latest turbine sites are and permit applications will show how much land is being disturbed. DEC does not enforce a proper review process; that is done through the legal system.

Mr. Madden said a number of studies, including sound, visual and geotechnical surveys, are under way to complete an evaluation in the supplemental and, eventually, the final environmental impact statement.

To coincide with the project’s possible spring 2012 construction, landowners can choose to plant annual crops, such as corn, next year. But planting hay again isn’t possible because the crop takes several years to be successful.

“We will likely replow it to keep the weeds down,” Mr. Madden said.