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Environmental group takes forest service to court over wind turbines

A local environmental group, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court asking that the U.S. Forest Service be prohibited from issuing a special permit for the construction of an electricity generation plant using 15 wind turbines in Readsboro and Searsburg.

The lawsuit, which also names some individual Vermonters as plaintiffs, asks the court for a judgment that building the project would violate the Wilderness Act and the Administrative Procedures Act or that the decision by the forest service violates the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Last week, the U.S. Forest Service announced a decision which upheld the approval for the project granted by the Green Mountain National Forest in January.

Green Mountain National Forest Supervisor Colleen Madrid approved the proposal to build the power facility and chose an alternative that calls for building 15 turbines, about 390 feet in height, on up to 80 acres of forest service land. Other alternatives considered would have included 17 turbines, seven turbines or no turbines under the “no action” alternative.

The U.S. Forest Service decision supported the local decision after considering seven appeals. Two of the appeals were withdrawn after compromises were reached about lighting the turbines and a third appeal was dismissed because the appellant had made no comments during several periods in which public comments had been accepted.

Forest service officials said last week they would wait, by regulation, for 15 days but expected to issues special permits to Deerfield and to Central Vermont Public Service, which is expected to distribute the electricity. The facility will generate enough electricity in a year to power about 13,000 homes.

The lawsuit filed Friday alleges six counts on which the court is asked to take action. The first is that the U.S. Forest Service has violated the Wilderness Act by failing to protect the George D. Aiken Wilderness which is close to the area of the proposed power plant.

Other count allege that the forest service failed to protect the Aiken wilderness from noise and visual impacts or to properly account for the effect on mortality of bats in the area. According to the lawsuit, the forest service’s analysis did not properly account for the damage which could be caused by blasting and didn’t look at alternative sites as required by law.

The forest service is also accused of “bias and conflict of interest” because a contractor who worked on the environmental impact statement was paid by the developer, Iberdola Renewables, an international company with offices in the United States.

“The (final environmental impact statement) and its conclusions on environmental impacts, particularly respecting the impacts on the Aiken wilderness, relied heavily on the opinions given by consultants who had testified before the (Vermont Public Service Board) as paid advocates for the developer. The Forest Service (impact statement) plagiarizes verbatim sections of those advocacy documents and misleadingly presents them as if they were neutral, unbiased and authoritative scientific work,” the suit said.

In a statement, members of the Vermonters for a Clean Environment expressed their commitment to opposing the project.

“(We) are confident that the law is on our side. We will defend the solitude of the George D. Aiken Wilderness and public access to U.S. Forest Service lands, not foreign corporations seeking to industrialize pristine habitat, to the fullest extent the law allows,” the statement said.

Ethan Ready, a spokesman for the Green Mountain National, said on Monday he couldn’t comment because of the ongoing litigation.