UNION – A huge crowd filled the seats and spilled out the doorways of the S.E. Miller gym in Union Tuesday night as the Oregon Department of Energy and its facilities siting council held a public hearing on the proposed Antelope Ridge Wind Farm.
The energy department, which recently deemed Horizon’s application to build the controversial facility complete, heard testimony from anyone who wanted to speak up – and plenty did.
More submitted written comments on the proposal, which has sharply divided the Union County community.
Before public testimony got under way, Sue Oliver, a facility siting officer with the department, explained the siting process. She said that the department must rule on the application according to standards spelled out in Oregon Administrative Rules.
“It’s one decision combining state and local requirements. The applicant must show it can meet the standards, or meet them with mitigation,” she said.
She said the public comment period is open until Feb. 14, but she also left the door open for comments received after that date.
“We understand people might have additional comments,” she said.
Oliver said that after the comment period, a draft proposed order will be prepared.
The draft order will be subject to a public hearing also, she said. A contested case proceeding could follow, Oliver said.
Valerie Franklin, Horizon’s Antelope Ridge Project Development manager, also spoke briefly before public testimony was taken.
She said the wind farm proposed for the Craig Mountain area near Union will have up to 164 turbines with wing tip heights up to 475 feet. The turbines will be taking advantage of a powerful wind resource, she said.
“The wind is strong here and it’s unique in that it’s winter peaking,” she said.
Franklin said the company’s lengthy application includes studies on a wide array of issues related to impacts and pays close attention to wildlife issues.
“We’ve done studies on birds, big game, bats and sage sage grouse,” she said.
Wildlife was much on the minds of people offering testimony. Several anti-wind farm people expressed concern about the four reported deaths of golden eagles at Horizon’s other wind facility, Elkhorn Valley.
Jed Farmer was one of them. He said he thinks the eagle fatality rate will be four times higher at Antelope Ridge than at Elkhorn.
He also said he is concerned about plans to site turbines in forest land.
“This is the only forested ridge top in the Pacific Northwest to have a string of turbines on it,” he said.
Another person voicing concern about golden eagles was Brian Kelly of the conservationist group Hells Canyon Preservation Council. Kelly said his group has some “serious” concerns about the wildlife issues.
“We’re strongly in favor of renewable energy, but facilities need to be located properly. Four eagle fatalities in a year is significant,” he said.
Still another man testifying said Horizon’s application doesn’t meet standards for wildlife, violates federal law and contains numerous technical errors.
Wind farm opponents raised a host of other concerns as well. One said construction threatens semaphore grass, a rare species that is listed as protected, and another expressed worry over ruts of the Oregon Trail that are present in the study area.
“This is a very important place for history,” said Caroline Barnes. “My God, this (Oregon Trail) is a national historic landmark and it’s against the law to desecrate it.”
For at least one person testifying, possible health impacts of the wind farm was an issue.
“There is a growing amount of information supporting the ideas there are health problems associated with wind farms,” said Bonnie Dunn.
As at most wind farm hearings and meetings held in Union County the past several months, opponents and proponents were out in about equal numbers.
Many stood up to say the chance for economic growth is too good to pass up. Mike Gooderham was one of them.
“I’m for wind power and I’m for economic development,” Gooderham said. “I’m proud of the fact that someone wants to spend money here and create jobs.”
Chris Haefer was another in a long line who said he favors construction because of the jobs it would bring to the county. He said the project would boost building contractors in the area. He added that he has faith that impacts will be properly mitigated.
“Horizon hasn’t spent two years studying just to throw a dummy piece of paper at us. There’s no threat, no lies,” he said.
Dan Perkins, a property owner in the Craig Mountain area, agreed with Haefer that the wind company is taking pains to properly site the facility.
“Nobody cares about the wildlife more than I do,” Perkins said. “I feel Horizon has met the standards and is mitigating impacts.”
Some people chose to testify about the Strategic Investment Program agreement tentatively worked out between Horizon and Union County. They expressed doubts about the benefits.
Stephen Donnell said that if the project is not fully built, SIP benefits would not be forthcoming to the county.
Beth Stewart, a Union School Board member, said money promised to local schools won’t be a “panacea.”
“It would be $1.5 million over 15 years, and that’s a very small amount. It’s just a fraction of what we need,” she said.
Horizon’s application can be downloaded at http://www.horizonwindfarms.com/western-region/under-dev/antelope-ridge.htm.
It is also available for viewing at the Cook Memorial Library in La Grande.
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