BURNS – The federal government has approved a 44-mile transmission line to carry electrical power from a proposed wind farm on the north side of 9,733-foot Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon’s high desert to an existing line in Harney County.
But Thursday’s go-ahead by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to construct the 230-kilovolt line triggered sharp criticism from the Oregon Natural Desert Association, ordinarily a wind energy supporter.
“We definitely think this is the right kind of project, but in the worst possible place,” association spokesman Matt Little said Friday.
The power line would cross a rolling sagebrush desert managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and link the proposed $300 million, 104-megawatt Echanis Wind Project on the north end of Steens Mountain with a power grid owned by Harney Electric Cooperative.
Echanis is planned by a Washington state company called Columbia Energy Partners on private land near Diamond. Harney County has approved its construction. It is one of two wind energy projects proposed by the company near the spectacular fault-block of Steens Mountain. Each would generate 104 megawatts, enough to power about 30,000 homes.
No permits have been granted for Columbia Energy Partners’ second operation called the Riddle Mountain project, also on private land, north of Steens Mountain. The company abandoned plans for two other similar-sized wind projects.
Adam Fletcher, spokesman for Salazar in Washington, D.C., said the transmission line would support 235 jobs and generate $4.5 million in local tax revenues for the life of the project. The go-ahead to build brings no federal construction dollars to the project, he said.
Echanis’ proposed 415-foot-tall wind turbines and the transmission line would have little impact on the pristine high-desert beauty of Steens Mountain, according to a draft environmental study released July 13. The findings said the 40 to 60 turbines would be visible from less than one-half of 1 percent of the 170,000-acre Steens Wilderness.
But the 1,200-member Oregon Natural Desert Association, in a departure from its usual stance supporting renewable energy, objects to wind turbines and transmission lines near the mountain, Little said.
The Steens proposal “is the first project we’ve opposed, because it is in such an amazing place,” he said. “This is a place that is really special to a lot of people.”
Among the environmental group’s objections: The Echanis wind turbines would go on 10,000 acres along a ridge used by golden eagles and other raptors and could block migration routes for elk and mule deer. Power generated by the turbines also is likely to go directly to California “at the cost of one of Oregon’s crown jewels,” Little said.
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