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Oakfield residents go to court to block proposed wind farm

Opponents of an industrial wind development in Aroostook County filed suit in federal court today to stop the project. The $360-million plan being developed by First Wind would install 50 mountaintop turbines in Oakfield, and run 59 miles of transmission lines through surrounding towns to a grid hook up in Chester, in Penobscot County. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that the project will require inland waterways and wetlands to be filled in, in ways that will end up violating both the federal Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. Jay Field reports.

Donna Davidge runs The William Sewall House, a Yoga retreat in Island Falls near the shores of Mattawamkeag Lake. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places. In the early 1870s, William Sewall, Davidge’s great grandfather, guided Theodore Roosevelt on expeditions into the Maine wilderness. Davidge says guests at The Sewall House visit, in part, for the chance to do Yoga by the lake.

“They’re always spellbounded by the fact that it’s not a busy lake, and the level of the pristine natural beauty that is there,” Davidge says. “The quiet and the peace, and the lack of, you know, any – any industry.”

But Davidge says that could change, if the 150-megawatt Oakfield development moves forward. Some of the 50 wind turbines the project calls for would be visible from the lake. Sewall worries about what that would mean for business. “We’re pretty established, too, in a pretty competitive field, and the lake has a lot to do with that.”

In 2011, Davidge and other plaintiffs lost an appeal before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. They had argued that the project’s approval by the Maine Board of Environmental Protection would harm visual and scenic values in the area. Now, though, Davidge, other nearby residents and two environmental groups are trying a different legal strategy in an effort to block the project.

“This one, because it requires an Army Corps of Engineers’ permit, gives us the opportunity to get into federal court,” says Lynne Williams, the Bar Harbor-based attorney representing Donna Davidge and the other Oakfield plaintiffs in a new lawsuit.

As part of the wind project, 59 miles of transmission lines would run from the Oakfield area, through various towns, to a grid hook-up in Chester, in Penobscot County. “And they are crossing numerous water bodies,” Williams says. “All those crossings require both temporary and permanent fill.”

Filling in those waterways, Williams argues, would harm water quality and endanger Atlantic salmon and Bald Eagles.

“The corps has given the permit, and what we’re asking for is the federal District Court of Maine to void the permit and to order that the Army Corps of Engineers go back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do an extensive biological assessment, both of the Bald Eagles in the area of the project, and of the Atlantic salmon,” Williams says.

A spokesman for First Wind, the company developing the Oakfield project, declined to talk on tape about pending litigation. But in e-mailed statement, John LaMontagne says, “During the permitting process for the project, the Army Corp of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service carefully and thoroughly reviewed the project and its potential impacts and concluded that it complied with applicable federal laws.”

Lamontagne goes on to say that the project will be able to deliver significant economic benefits to the region and the town of Oakfield, while generating clean renewable energy that will power thousands of homes.

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