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No lake windmills on their minds; County legislators oppose the project

The Erie County Legislature on Thursday opposed the placement of power-generating windmills in Lake Erie—a move that lawmakers hope dissuades the New York Power Authority from erecting a wind farm off the county’s shoreline.

Erie became at least the seventh of nine New York counties fronting Lake Erie or Lake Ontario to oppose the placement of offshore windmills. Nearby, the Chautauqua County Legislature stated its opposition in the summer of 2010. A majority of Niagara County lawmakers this year agreed to oppose a wind farm in Lake Ontario.

The Power Authority has said it will take such statements into account. But a spokeswoman responded to the Erie County Legislature’s action by saying that while the authority respects the legislators’ views, it will continue gathering public comment for its “Great Lakes Offshore Wind Project” without ruling out locations.

“The New York Power Authority is keeping its options open concerning the project location in order to continue listening to the greatest amount of public input possible,” spokeswoman Connie Cullen said, “and to give the many different facets of the general public an opportunity to be heard.”

In a statement approved 13-2, legislators said they feared a wind farm could dislodge toxins in the lake bed, affect shipping lanes, threaten wildlife with electrical shorts and harm sport fishing – all threats that have yet to be studied for the Great Lakes project.

“The installation of a wind farm would create a change in scenery, with a negative effect on the beauty of Lake Erie, which is admired by visitors to Western New York and residents alike,” the statement said before concluding, “the Erie County Legislature opposes the exploitation of Lake Erie as a site for a wind farm.”

An advocate for renewable forms of energy lamented the Legislature’s decision, especially as workers in Japan struggle to contain a nuclear reactor stricken during the massive earthquake there last week.

“We are extremely disappointed that Erie County would choose to take clean, safe, renewable energy options off the table,” said Brian Smith, Western New York program director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “In particular, as we watch the horror unravel in Japan, we should be embracing the potential for clean energy, not fearing it.

“There are issues that we need to take a serious look at,” he continued. “But that is why we have a rigorous environmental review process to address these issues. We think that a resolution in opposition at this point is very premature.”

The project must face environmental reviews by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers before construction could begin, perhaps in 2014, the Power Authority has stated.

The agency intends to select a company to place up to 166 windmills in Lake Erie and/or Lake Ontario, to let the more-constant offshore gales generate electricity. The authority would buy the electricity under a multiyear agreement, guaranteeing a revenue stream for a developer willing to spend an estimated $1 billion. The cluster, or clusters, of windmills would occupy a tiny percentage of either lake’s massive expanse, the authority says.

The plan has advocates and critics.

“As I studied wind energy and the proposal, I found there is absolutely no net benefits for Erie County from the GLOW Project,” Thomas Marks of Derby, executive director of a group called Great Lakes Wind Truth, said in a letter to the Legislature last month.

“This wind folly only benefits big foreign companies,” he wrote. “It does nothing for the little guy. There are no long-term jobs.”

The primary sponsor of the Legislature’s statment was Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, an Independent from Hamburg who votes with the Republican bloc. Lawmakers considered her resolution and a similar measure by Legislator Daniel M. Kozub, a Democrat also from Hamburg.

Kozub’s version said the Legislature opposes an off-shore wind farm – but pending further study, and it said the Legislature supports windmills on land as a source of clean energy.

With a procedural feint, Dixon’s statement won the day. Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, D-Amherst, suggested both remain in a committee to be merged. The Republicans went along in sending away Kozub’s resolution but then placed Dixon’s up for a vote with help from Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, and some Democrats who often vote with her.

Loughran voted against the Dixon measure to protest being misled. Majority Leader Maria R. Whyte, D-Buffalo, said she voted against the Dixon statement because she wants more study on the project before she takes a position.