Supporters of a wind turbine project on Maryland’s Eastern Shore have vowed to keep working to turn the debate in their favor.
In an interview Wednesday, Sen. Jim Mathias, a Democrat representing Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties, said he is asking Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) to look again at the issue from the perspective of many of his constituents, and hers, on the opposite side of the Chesapeake Bay.
Mathias said he’s drafting a letter asking Mikulski, chair womanof the Senate Appropriations Committee, to reconsider strong language she included in an appropriations bill approved in committee last month. The amendment directs the U.S. Navy not to enter into an agreement with Texas-based Pioneer Green – the company seeking to build 25 turbines on land leased from farmers in small towns like Marion Station — until further study is complete, determining how the windmills might interfere with radar tests based in Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Mathias also was part of a press conference last Thursday where proponents of the wind farm explained their position. And, he said he’ll continue talks with lawmakers at the state and federal levels.
“I’ve spoken with Sen. Mikulski directly. And I’ve asked her to withdraw the language,” Mathias said. The project stands to generate revenue for Somerset, the state’s poorest county, and about 200 landowners already have entered tentative lease agreements with Pioneer Green.
Mikulski, and dozens of other legislators, say the project poses threats to Pax River, particularly to tests when turbines are spinning. And, they also have said an initial study focusing on the turbines looked at windmills up to 600 feet high.
Pioneer Green Vice President Adam Cohen said earlier this year the structures could go as high as the tallest in the industry, up to about 700 feet.
But the company also has agreed to turn off the turbines, perhaps up to about 1,500 hours a year. Pax River proponents say, even with the windmills shut down, orchestrating such an operating schedule with a private company adds another hurdle to an already-complex aircraft testing process. They fear the changes could lead to multimillion-dollar scheduling delays that push defense programs, and jobs that go with them, out of Southern Maryland and to communities with fewer encroachment obstacles.
Mikulski’s amendment to the appropriations bill reads:
“The Committee is aware that the Department of the Navy commissioned the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to conduct a study to determine the effects and a potential mitigation plan between the operation of the proposed wind energy project and the Patuxent Naval Air Station.
“The study is not yet completed. Therefore, the Committee directs the Navy to refrain from executing any agreement with respect to the operation of the proposed wind energy project until the study is provided to the congressional defense committees.”
Mikulski said in a statement that she would carefully review correspondence sent. And, she said she has been “supportive of developing alternative energy sources.
“However, the Navy has commissioned a $2 million MIT study to make sure PAX’s test range is not disrupted. The study should be completed before next steps are taken. Better safe than sorry,” she wrote through her communications office.
The measure, next, must be approved by the full Senate. And even if it’s not, Pax supporters believe the Navy now understands Mikulski’s position, and may hesitate to ever enter an agreement.
“If this were to pass, this could be fatal to the project,” Mathias said. “Certainly, I understand my colleagues in Southern Maryland.” He understands their concern about jobs at Pax River, but Mathias says processes are in place to protect Pax. He’s working to protect Somerset.
Waiting until further study is complete would cause Pioneer Green to miss federal tax credits that would make building the turbines possible, and it would mean the company would have to repeat several years-long processes, such as getting their project on a regional power grid, Pioneer Green development manager Paul Harris said Monday.
“We’re waiting to hear back from the senator, and I guess we’ll go from there,” said Tommy Landers, Maryland policy director at Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a group working with Mathias and Pioneer Green to protect the project. Navy officials have said they’d be willing to work toward an agreement, Landers said. “What’s wrong with curtailment? That’s sort of the big question.”
It seems like St. Mary’s County is “kind of telling us what we can do over here in Somerset. And I don’t really think that’s fair,” said Mary Ann Peterman, who said she lives at a crossroads just outside of Marion Station, on the farm her great grandparents started, where her father worked the fields.
Southern Maryland has an economic engine in the Navy base, she said. “Why can’t we have an opportunity over here? I’m a landowner, and I’m in the project. We’re slated to get a turbine.”
While not everyone in Somerset is in favor of the windmills, many farmers are concerned that it would be difficult to maintain their fields if they can’t diversify their income in what has been a challenging economy, she said. “This would be an enormous revenue source for our county,” said Peterman, a retired first-grade teacher, who hopes a turbine on her land would enable her children to afford to upkeep the property, which includes her 170-year-old home.
“This company is not asking anything of the county. They’re saying we can come and do this, and you can benefit from it.”
“I was very disappointed in Sen. Mikulski. I thought she was taking the side of the defense industry,” Peterman said. “I think politics should have stayed out of it. I think they should be able to work this out so that both counties can benefit. It sends a bad message to any kind of company that wants to come into Maryland.”
“Pioneer Green has come to our area, doing their due diligence,” Mathias said, emphasizing that the company has played by the rules, doing what’s required of it by law and has proposed a project that supports the state’s plans to decrease its dependence of fossil fuels and electricity.
State law requires that utilities purchase 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2022. The windmill project could help Maryland reach that goal, and it would initially put 700 people to work, from truck drivers, surveyors and wetlands experts to hospitality and restaurant workers, generating revenue for schools and roads, Cohen of Pioneer Green said this spring as state lawmakers debated the issue. He expected 15 to 20 workers would remain in permanent jobs maintaining the windmills.
The Navy also confirmed in May, through spokesman Lt. Richlyn Ivey, that the military branch was in negotiations with Pioneer Green to address “relevant issues” and find a solution.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), also in May, vetoed the state legislature’s overwhelming decision – 31-16 in the Senate and 112-22 in the House – to delay the project.
O’Malley said the base’s biggest threat was rising sea levels and other environmental concerns. Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) and a list of environmentalists have stood with the governor on the issue.
Those feats are enough to buoy Mathias’ hopes to keep the turbine project alive.
“We’re hoping to garner as much support as we can and strengthen the alliances we have,” he said. “I hope people who represent the state of Maryland will see the value in this.”
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