BINGHAM – A proposed 62-turbine wind farm that would be the largest in the state if built has received preliminary approval from the Department of Environmental Protection.
The draft decision, issued Wednesday by Patricia Aho, commissioner of the department, means that the department could issue a final decision on the project as early as Sept. 5. The deadline for a final decision is Sept. 8, according to department spokeswoman Jessamine Logan.
Blue Sky West, a Boston-based developer and subsidiary of the company First Wind Holdings Inc., has been seeking approval for the project since May 2013 amid challenges, including a Maine Supreme Judicial Court case about a key financial partnership, and delays because of perceived threats to bats.
The project promoters also have faced opposition from residents and environmental groups in the area, and the project could be appealed to the state Board of Environmental Protection if it receives final approval.
“There are both advocates and opponents of wind farms in the communities where they are proposed, which makes them controversial,” Logan said in an email. “Commissioner Aho sought to address concerns in the permitting process by having the department host a public meeting. … This gives the people who are most affected by a project an additional opportunity to voice their thoughts and concerns and for the department to consider those comments before issuing a decision.”
The draft decision makes approval subject to several conditions, including the requirement that the company take additional action to prevent soil erosion or dangerous emissions during construction and operation, submit evidence of adequate financing to complete the project, and buy and transfer a 90-acre parcel to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for use as a deer wintering area.
“We’re pleased the DEP has recommended approval of the project, and we look forward to making a $400 million investment in the Maine economy,” said John Lamontagne, a spokesman for First Wind, in an email.
He said the company has not secured financing for the project yet and that it does not yet have a construction schedule in place.
The decision is not surprising, said Brad Blake, chairman of the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power. The group was started in 2009 by a group of Maine residents opposed to the Kibby Wind Power Project in Franklin County and has grown to represent opposition to wind farms around the state.
“We are unalterably opposed to the farce of destroying Maine’s uplands for a scam that helps wind developers make money on something that doesn’t work,” said Blake, who cited the state’s 2008 Wind Energy Act as an opportunity for wind developers to destroy Maine’s natural resources in an effort to establish additional wind energy markets.
“Communities can protest all they wish, but all the wind companies have their way,” Blake said. “I raise the question all the time, ‘What is environmental protection when you have a law on the books that allows such destruction of the natural and scenic resources of the state?’ Bingham is a perfect example of that.”
The concerns that Blake and his group raise – adverse health effects related to exposure to low-frequency vibrations generated by turbines, the fragmentation of wildlife habitats, lower property values and the creation of eyesores in some of Maine’s most scenic and uninterrupted natural areas – are issues that many residents have brought up before, including at public meetings held by the department.
Yet plans for the Bingham Wind Project and others throughout the state have made it to the final stages of the department’s approval process.
First Wind has plans to build 11 turbines of up to 492 feet in height in Bingham, 22 in Kingsbury Plantation and 29 in Mayfield Township.
The company has proposed “community benefits agreements” in those areas and with some organizations that would be affected by the wind farm, including a promise of $176,000 a year for 20 years to Kingsbury Plantation.
Bingham would get about $88,000 a year for 20 years and Moscow would get $20,000 for 20 years, according to First Wind.
Following a public meeting in July 2013, the project was put on hold in November because of concern about the danger the turbines might pose to bats threatened by white-nose syndrome, a rapidly spreading fungal disease.
Following a second meeting in February, a coalition of groups organized to support and advocate for the Appalachian Trail dropped opposition after Blue Sky West agreed to pay $700,000 to create a land conservation fund.
The legality of a partnership between First Wind and Nova Scotia-based Emera was challenged before the state supreme court in a case questioning whether the partnership would create an unfair monopoly in the wind energy market. The high court struck down the initial decision of the state Public Utilities Commission approving the joint venture, but the PUC subsequently adopted additional conditions on the partnership intended to prevent the project from monopolizing wind power and granted its approval.
The Bingham project is the final project proposed by First Wind to receive a decision.
The company operates five wind farms in Maine, and construction is underway on another project in the Aroostook County town of Oakfield.
Another project in northeastern Hancock County also has been approved, and the company is appealing a decision denying the construction of a wind farm on Bowers Mountain in Penobscot County.
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