Two Oregon land conservation groups last week jointly filed a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Interior Department’s approval of the Echanis wind project, a proposed $300 million wind farm that would be built in the high desert of Harney County.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association and the Audubon Society of Portland claim the Interior Department was operating illegally when it approved a 43-mile transmission line for the project in December.
According to Brent Fenty, executive director of the ONDA, the Interior Department did not take proper steps to gauge how the line would affect wildlife in the area, which is required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Additionally, Fenty said the line would impose upon land protected by a congressional designation issued in 2000.
“It’s unfortunate in a time when we’re all committed to trying to see renewable projects happen that instead of focusing on the areas we can agree on, we’re focusing on an area that most Oregonians would agree is not a good place for wind development,” Fenty said.
Columbia Energy Partners, based in Vancouver, Wash., wants to put 40 to 60 wind turbines on private property on the north side of Steens Mountain. The turbines would generate 104 megawatts of power that would be bought by Southern California Edison, one of the largest electric utilities in California. The transmission line is an essential project piece because it would allow the power produced to be transferred away from the farm.
Initially, Columbia Energy Partners was going to build four wind farms in the area, but those plans were scaled back for reasons unknown to the public. Nevertheless, Fenty believes that even a reduced-scope project could damage the area; he hopes the lawsuit will prevent construction entirely.
“We spent a lot of time trying to work through changes that could be made to the project, but underlying all of this is the belief that there are better places to do this kind of development,” Fenty said. “It’s an incredible place that we believe should be protected for future generations.”
Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, said Steens Mountain is not an optimal place for wind development because it contains a large number of rare animal species. Sallinger said the transmission line could potentially disrupt migratory routes and breeding areas for the species and that the Interior Department did not adequately consider known data identifying the presence of eagles and raptors in the area.
“Right now, we are seeing a gold rush mentality where some developers are willing to pursue industrial development even on our most sacred landscapes,” Sallinger said. “This represents the first time that Portland Audubon has sued to stop a wind project in Oregon – it speaks to the importance of this landscape and to the inappropriateness of this project.”
Both Sallinger and Fenty also said that the line would pass through public land designated as a Cooperative Management and Protection Area by Congress. Under the law, the Interior Department is required to protect the land’s “long-term ecological integrity.” The lawsuit states that the line could put that integrity at risk.
However, Harney County officials plan to “aggressively respond” to the lawsuit, claiming it is invalid. Harney County Judge Steve Gratsky said Columbia Energy Partners spent millions of dollars on impact studies that demonstrated how the project’s environmental effects could be mitigated. He added that only a small portion of the transmission line would be within the CMPA.
“The thing that’s most frustrating to me is them sitting in a small, rural community organization Sunday and talking about how they were collaborating with the community – then three days later filing a litigation,” Gratsky said. “From a commerce point of view, this is the anti-groups having all the power to stop things.”
Gratsky said that the line would affect only a few thousand dollars worth of the acreage valued at $6.5 million.
Randy Fulton, the county’s economic development director, said the lawsuit does not say how the project would affect local residents. According to Fulton, the project would provide more than 100 construction jobs in an area that has struggled to adjust since the Edward Hines Lumber Co., which had provided more than 1,000 jobs, left in the late 1980s.
“They mention some endangered species that might be affected, but we’ve got to be considered as one of those species affected,” Fulton said. “I understand what they’re thinking, but we have to have a right to survive down here.”
Fulton said communicating with the ONDA has been difficult; for example, he claimed that he invited Fenty to speak at a town hall meeting in Harney County and received no response. Fenty, meanwhile, said the developers and county officials have not listened to the ONDA’s recommendations, including a report compiled by the organization that lists half a million acres elsewhere in the state optimal for wind development.
Gratsky said the county is planning to challenge the lawsuit. Neither the Interior Department nor Columbia Energy Partners would comment on the matter.
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