A controversial wind farm near the heart of the Columbia River Gorge took a step closer to approval Thursday, but only if 15 of its proposed turbines are eliminated to lessen the project’s visibility from the country’s only national scenic area.
Washington’s energy facility siting council recommended that Gov. Chris Gregoire approve the wind farm in Skamania County near the city of White Salmon.
The council voted 6-0 to recommend approval, with one member absent. Gregoire now has 60 days to decide whether the project should go forward, be further modified or rejected.
“We conclude that the Whistling Ridge Energy Project, with modifications, will provide the region with energy benefits and will not result it significant unmitigated adverse environmental impacts,” said the order issued by the coucil.
SDS Lumber Co. of Bingen and Broughton Lumber Co. of Underwood originally proposed the $150 million Whistling Ridge wind farm in 2008. The project comprised 50 turbines on 1,200 acres the companies own just outside the scenic area on the ridges above White Salmon.
The project has faced opposition from environmental groups and nearby landowners because of its potential visual and noise impacts. Conservation groups are also questioning its potential effects on the endangered northern spotted owl, which has been sited in the area. Five groups led by the Seattle Audubon Society formally asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week to reconsider its decision that the project would have no impact on the owl.
The 15 turbines that the council recommended removing included seven that would have loomed over the community of Underwood, Wash., and eight of the 29 turbines that would be visible to motorists entering Hood River on I-84 westbound.
James Luce, chairman of the siting council, said at Thursday’s public meeting in Stevenson that the turbines in question would be “impermissibly intrusive into the scenic vista,” and that there was no way to mitigate against those impacts.
Nathan Baker, staff attorney for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said he was encouraged that the council recognized the visual impact, but said his organization would almost certainly file for the council to reconsider its recommendation and ask the governor to reject the project altogether.
“The turbines they chose to eliminate are definitely the ones with the worst visual impact,” Baker said. “But many of the others have significant impacts as well. This location is simply the wrong location for this project.
The project would generate up to nine permanent jobs and $800,000 in annual tax revenue for Skamania County, according to its environmental impact statement. It’s not clear how the elimination of 15 turbines would alter those numbers or the overall economics of the project. SDS did not return calls for comment.
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