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Turbine safety concerns: Urbana City seeks to testify before state board about wind project

URBANA – Urbana’s city prosecutor said the proposed Buckeye II Wind Project might hurt medical helicopter operations and the municipal airport but said he is skeptical that either the state or the project’s managers are concerned with the city’s interests.

Everpower, the company in charge of the $55 million project, was under the impression most of those issues have been resolved, said Jason Dagger, project developer for the Buckeye Wind Project.

“We’re more than willing to work with all involved parties,” Dagger said.

Gil Weithman, the city’s attorney, filed a motion to intervene in the case with the Ohio Power Siting Board, which is reviewing the project. The motion requests permission to testify during a siting board hearing scheduled for early November.

The city’s motion alleges that representatives of Champaign Wind have failed to contact either CareFlight, a medical helicopter operator, or Grimes Field Airport when determining locations for the turbines, and instead relied solely on a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration that declared that the proposed turbine sites would present “no hazard.” The city owns and operates Grimes Field Airport.

The Buckeye II project, which could begin construction as early as 2013, would build 56 turbines across several townships in Champaign County. Combined with the first phase of the project, it would include about 100 turbines. Proponents have said the Buckeye Wind project could add 1,200 jobs during the construction phase and add $100 million to the region’s economy through the use of local labor.

The FAA designation should alleviate concerns about aviation near Grimes Field, including CareFlight, Dagger said, but if there are further concerns, the company is willing to talk to any entities involved in the project. Everpower also hired an aviation consultant to review potential impacts when determining sites for the turbines. The turbines proposed in the second phase of the project will be located further from the air field than those proposed during the first phase of the project, Dagger said.

“We’re going to work through any issues they may have,” Dagger said.

The city’s motion also accuses staff from the state siting board of failing to investigate potential impacts from the project on their own initiative.

“Champaign Wind has not demonstrated a good-faith effort to work with the city to protect its interests,” the motion states. “Therefore, the city must intervene to protect its interests from adverse impacts from this project.”

Weithman said he learned only recently that, although the siting board had asked Champaign Wind to contact representatives from CareFlight and Grimes Field, the company failed to do so.

In addition, Weithman said when siting board staff provided testimony during the first phase of the project, staff members were unaware that CareFlight was operating from Grimes Field, and only conducted a “drive-by” tour of the facility without speaking to airport management or pilots who use the facility.

“That’s how much attention they paid to that stuff,” Weithman said of the siting board staff members.

The state is unable to discuss specific complaints made by the city, said Matt Butler, a spokesman for the siting board. However, a staff recommendation to the board will likely be available in the next few weeks and will include a review of aviation issues at the facility, Butler said.

“It’s certainly something we take into account,” Butler said.

The siting board will consider the staff report, public comments, and testimony from interested parties before making any decisions on the proposed project.

The city’s motion also cites concerns that an emergency at one of the turbine sites would require a response from the Urbana Fire Division, but said local departments lack the training and equipment to deal with emergencies at those facilities.

The turbine towers themselves are mostly made of metal, so fire is not the primary concern, said Mark Keller, Chief of the Urbana Fire Division. But if there was a medical emergency at one of the towers, which can be as tall as 490 feet from the base to the top of the blade, the department’s current equipment would likely be insufficient. The ladder trucks, for example, can only reach a height of about 100 feet.

“Right now we are not capable of handling that,” said Keller.

In the meantime, Keller said he is researching how other departments operating near wind projects have responded to emergencies.

However, the company has promised it will provide training and cover costs for necessary equipment before construction begins, Dagger said.

The motion also says it is not clear what, if any, impact the wind project might have on annual tourism events such as the Mid-East Regional Fly-In or the hot air balloon festival.

Officials from the MERFI Fly-in declined to comment about whether the wind project would have any effect on the event.

Despite the motion, Weithman said local officials have little control over how the project is sited, and he is unsure what effect if any the city’s testimony will have.

“That did nothing to help my cynicism other than to make it worse than it already was,” Weithman said.