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Deerfield wind project on Obama’s fast track

SEARSBURG – The proposed 30-megawatt Deerfield wind project in southern Vermont is among 14 projects the Obama Administration has fast-tracked for federal review.

“We’re optimistic we’ll have a decision by the end of the year,” said Ethan Ready, spokesman for Green Mountain National Forest.

The project, which was first proposed in 2005, could set a national precedent by allowing a commercial wind operation in a national forest, Ready said, and has generated extensive public comment during the federal review process.

The project, proposed for two neighboring ridgelines in the Bennington County towns of Searsburg and Readsboro, would include 15 two- megawatt turbines, with about half of the project in the Green Mountain National Forest. The proposed project would be adjacent to the state’s first commercial wind project in Searsburg.

Ready said Green Mountain Forest Supervisor Colleen Madrid had been slated to issue her decision on whether to grant the project federal approval by the end of the year. At issue is an environmental impact statement, which would assess the project’s impact on critical wildlife habitat of black bear, songbirds and bats, as well as noise and erosion.

Ready said the review was “in the final stages” already.

Ready said there were strong opinions on both sides of the argument, which he said he expected would lead to appeals.

“As we’ve seen with other proposals, good people are passionate on both sides of the project,” Ready said. “People will be disappointed with the decision regardless of the outcome. At this point a decision hasn’t been made. It’s a difficult balance.”

Ready said that the more than 1,000 comments from the public needed to be considered carefully before issuing a decision.

It is the Forest Service’s option to approve a much smaller project than proposed, he said.

The Obama Administration on Tuesday released a list of 14 projects for expedited federal permitting in an effort to add jobs to the stagnant economy, the list included two proposed wind facilities both in national forests. The other is the Cleghorn Ridge project in the San Bernardino National Forest, with 52 turbines.

Most of the other projects dealt with traditional infrastructure, including the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City, and housing projects in Colorado and Washington, D.C.

The project is owned by Iberdrola Renewables of Portland, Ore., a subsidiary of a large Spanish firm that has garnished an amazing percentage of Obama administration federal stimulus funds in the past for green energy projects, said Annette Smith of Danby, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.

A Iberdrola spokeswoman didn’t return a call for comment on the project Wednesday.

Ready wouldn’t say whether Iberdrola has received federal funding for the Deerfield project.

Smith, whose group opposes large-scale wind projects including the project currently under construction in Lowell in northern Vermont, said Tuesday’s announcement “shocked ” her.

“It’s Obama ‘green energy’ madness,” Smith said. Developing a commercial wind facility on Vermont mountain ridgelines “couldn’t be more expensive and more damaging,” she said.

The proposed Deerfield project would obliterate black bear habitat in that portion of southern Vermont, she said.

“It’s a crime against nature,” she said. “And a very poor use of money. This is as expensive as it gets.”

Ben Rose, the northeast director for The Wilderness Society, said his group was perplexed by the Deerfield project’s inclusion in the list. The project is immediately adjacent to the George Aiken Wilderness Area in the national forest.

“We’re trying to find out what this does and doesn’t mean. There’s a permit process under the law. The project has to go through the process,” Rose said.

Rose said that the Deerfield project had already “attracted some tough questions” and he said the Wilderness Society had asked the Forest Service to do another review.

“We have some concerns how the analysis of alternatives was conducted,” he said.

“In general we support this administration’s renewable energy policy. The Wilderness Society is looking to support good projects in good places. We don’t think the Deerfield project is a good project,” Rose said.