Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council this week left unchanged its October decision to scale back but approve a wind farm that would be visible from the towns of White Salmon and Hood River, in the heart of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.
That leaves the controversial project up in the air, though Gov. Chris Gregoire is required to render her opinion on the project in 60 days.
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 also question its potential effects on the endangered northern spotted owl, as well as the marketability of the energy to be produced.
In October, the council recommended removing 15 turbines from the project, including 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.
Backers and opponents of the wind farm were disappointed with the council’s decision not to revisit its earlier findings. Jason Spadaro, president of SDS Lumber says the earlier recommendation to scale back the project was based on subjective judgements of its visual impacts, and would ultimately make it economically unviable.
“It’s not viable in today’s environment or any time in the foreseeable future,” Spadaro said.
SDS was supported by the economic development officials in Skamania and Klickitat counties. Skamania County, facing a revenue hit from the loss of federal timber payments, argued that it was economically depressed and would be plunged into deeper troubles if the project didn’t move forward.
The council replied in its decision this week that such factors were essentially irrelevant in its decision.
Likewise, opponents of the project raised a raft of issues with the council’s earlier decision, ranging from scenic and wildlife impacts to mitigation measures such as nighttime lighting on the turbine blades. The council declined to revisit any of those issues.
“I’m surprised they didn’t take the opportunity clean up inconsistencies and omissions in their permit,” said Nathan Baker, staff attorney for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “They were more interested in moving this along than getting it right.”
Gregoire can choose to accept, reject or send the council’s decision back for more work. Her decision can be appealed to state supreme court.
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