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DNR, Fish & Wildlife critical of proposed Fillmore County wind project

HARMONY – The largest wind project ever permitted in Minnesota could soon become the second project in the state to pursue an incidental take permit to kill bald eagles. To date, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has never issued such a permit.

The 280-megawatt EcoHarmony West Wind project near Mystery Cave State Park in Fillmore County has faced increased scrutiny from wildlife agencies since February when it applied to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for an extension of its Certificate of Need and Site Permit, which were both issued in 2010 and have now expired.

Construction of a wind project typically takes six to 12 months. This project has yet to break ground because of a change in ownership, the lack of a power purchase agreement and failure to secure financing due to issues related to adding the project to the energy grid.

The transmission issue remained unresolved as of February, when the extension request was submitted to the PUC. Bill Smeaton, of Gamesma Energy, the new developer, describes the request as a” fairly routine matter,” but state and federal agencies appear to have a different view.

The permit approved in 2010 called for a 280-megawatt project. The new turbine layout calls for 100, 2-megawatt turbines – making it a 200-megawatt project – although Gamesma has noted that the layout is still being revised and a new layout will be ready in August.

The PUC is expected to consider the request in October.

“Nothing is simple anymore,” said Larry Hartman of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, whose staff will file comments and make its recommendation this fall.

Both wildlife agencies have previously commented on the EcoHarmony project, but new methods have been developed during the last two years that could pose roadblocks for the ambitious wind project.

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources filed paperwork designating the proposed wind project a “high risk” site for bats and birds, according to its new Guidance for Commercial Wind Energy Projects program. That news has raised a cry from some citizens in Goodhue County facing a similar situation with the AWA Goodhue project. The 78-megawatt AWA Goodhue project is also considering an incidental take permit for bald eagles.

Three citizens have recently filed comments on the EcoHarmony project after none did so in 2010.

“Research into … bats and wildlife has been evolving very rapidly in recent years,” Jamie Schrenzel of the DNR said Wednesday during a phone interview.

“We would recommend … fatality monitoring protocol, if they were to go on with project development.”

However, bats and birds are far from the only concern raised by the DNR.

The proposed project is in close proximity to Mystery Cave State Park and the Cherry Grove Blind Valley Scientific and Natural Area, which is a known bat hibernaculum that also contains sinkholes, underground streams, springs and rare plant and animal species. That karst geology would need to be “carefully considered” during development and construction to “avoid any impacts,” the DNR wrote. Additionally, 28 turbines are located in “close proximity” to known sinkholes, which could pose problems.

The DNR letter also says developers have made no effort to reduce impacts on the state park.

Six active bald eagle nests have been confirmed within two miles of the project’s boundary this year after 40 bald eagle observations were made during the 2008-09 winter survey. Because of that data, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recommends that EcoHarmony develop an Eagle Conservation Plan prior to construction. That is part of the service’s new Final Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines created since the project was initially permitted.

“Developing a robust Eagle Conservation plan will lay the groundwork for an eagle take permit application, should the project proponent choose to proceed with the permit application,” USFWS Field Supervisor Tony Sullins wrote in his June comment.

The penalty for disturbing a bald eagle or its habitat, per the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, is a fine of $100,000, one year in prison, or both, for a first offense. A second violation is considered a felony.

It’s unclear how much the EcoHarmony project will cost to build or how many jobs it would create. The largest wind project currently operating in Minnesota is the 225-megawatt project in Buffalo Ridge. A 205.5-megawatt Fenton Wind project was also built in 2011 at the cost of $385 million.

The 67-turbine Dexter wind project has a nameplate capacity of 100.5 megawatts.