For Antelope resident John Silvertooth, so profound has been what he calls the “dome of silence” regarding a potential wind farm near his hometown that he expressed shock when a reporter called to ask him about the project.
“I’m surprised there’s been no news coverage,” he said. “This project will be one of the biggest in Oregon. It’s like they found the perfect hideout. You can bet if they were doing a 70,000-acre project at the coast, everyone would know about it.”
Silvertooth’s confusion is understandable. The story of the proposed Brush Canyon Wind Power Facility has echoes of David and Goliath: four tiny desert towns with a cumulative population of just over 200 – along with thousands of acres of lightly used scrubby rangeland – and an energy company among the 10 largest in the world.
E.ON Climate & Renewables North America, with affiliate headquarters in Germany, proposed Brush Canyon to the Oregon Department of Energy in 2011. If built, Brush Canyon would be Oregon’s second-largest wind farm in terms of wattage – behind Shepherd’s Flat, which covers fewer acres in Morrow County – and it would stretch from Grass Valley to Antelope along a corridor between U.S. Highway 97 and the John Day River.
At some 76,000 acres, or 119 square miles, Brush Canyon’s footprint would be slightly smaller than the city of Portland. Project boundaries come right up to the doorstep of Antelope and Shaniko and at some points cross over Highway 97.
Projected turbine sites include towers within 2 miles of both towns and 4 miles from the John Day State Scenic Waterway. According to E.ON’s application, either towers or transmission wires are expected to be visible from parts of the Lower Deschutes River Canyon – including the designated Deschutes River State Scenic Waterway – and the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Clarno unit, as well as the Bureau of Land Management’s Spring Basin Wilderness Area and sections of Highways 97, 197 and 128.
Silvertooth, a retired attorney whose mother grew up in Antelope, has been watching and participating in the approval process for Brush Canyon since the first public meeting in Shaniko in 2011.
“People think there’s some farmer going out and turning these things (wind turbines) on, but it’s actually huge corporations, and my concern is that they are so intent on getting what they want they’re not looking at everything,” he said. “These are tiny dots of towns out here, with no expert city staff or attorneys. And it’s a very complicated thing, not something you can just wade into. Yet these (E.ON officials) are smart people with money, and if this goes through they are going to have a lot more money.”
One of Antelope’s primary concerns is the construction traffic the project would bring. Brush Canyon would need 95 miles of new roads to install and maintain its 535 turbines, according to documents it submitted to the state’s energy department, and it plans to use a gravel pit just outside Antelope. Silvertooth said it’s his understanding that construction trucks would increase traffic through Antelope by 600 percent.
“What did they think, that there’s nobody living here?” he said. “To put in these turbines they need something like a 60-foot-wide road.”
Antelope City Council has officially asked the state to require a road bypass for the project in order to take traffic off state Highway 218, which is part of Oregon’s Scenic Byways program.
The list of stakeholders in the Brush Canyon project is long, including the U.S. Navy, National Park Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Land Management, the cities of Kent, Grass Valley, Shaniko and Antelope, as well as Wasco and Sherman counties.
Concerns cited during the proposal process have included negative impacts to wildlife – including several sensitive species – light and noise pollution, interference with military air training routes, damage to the land and weed propagation, fire protection, views from the towns and recreational scenic areas, potential mineral and tribal rights violations, and infrastructure damage.
E.ON responded to all concerns in a lengthy application submitted in March 2013 and the state issued a draft proposed order in November. According to Cliff Voliva, Oregon Department of Energy’s public information coordinator, a final proposed order is expected sometime in September.
Attempts to reach several E.ON representatives for comment have been unsuccessful.
In April 2014 E.ON signed a memorandum of agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense, agreeing to keep towers and lines either out of military flight paths or under a maximum height. No other changes to the initial application have been filed with the state.
“I don’t get it,” Silvertooth said. “They could move a few turbines so they’re not hanging over our breakfast tables, but they won’t.” He added that Antelope’s concern regarding the construction traffic is not just about their town but about Highway 218’s significance as a tourism draw. According to Silvertooth, the highway is heavily used in summer by touring bicyclists, motorcycles, RVs and, in fire season, fire crews and equipment vehicles.
The initial public comment period for Brush Canyon closed in January. The Department of Energy’s siting council is expected to issue a proposed order next month, at which time the project will enter an automatic contested case phase.
“The time frame for completing the contested case varies greatly depending on the number of parties to the contested case and the number and complexity of issues being considered,” Voliva wrote in an email. An independent hearing officer will be appointed for the contested case proceeding, in which people wanting to participate may request party status.
Ultimately, the project moves to a final order and site certificate, at which time work may proceed.
According to Voliva, some projects have been withdrawn before the siting council made a decision, but he’s unaware of any applications that have been rejected or denied.
“We’re in suspended animation,” Silvertooth said. “This has been hanging over us for years and we don’t know what to do. We’re just not equipped to deal with something like this. We’ve suspected we’re in the Third World out here, but now we really know it.”
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