BLUEFIELD, Va. – The breeze blows strong and steady atop East River Mountain, a 4,000-foot-high ridge line rising from the Allegheny Mountains and forming Virginia’s far southwestern border.
That’s one reason utility giant Dominion Virginia Power wants to erect as many as 40 wind turbines along eight miles of Appalachian wilderness.
It is an ideal spot for the state’s first commercial wind farm, boosters say – and a perfect project to help one of the poorest corners of the nation rebuild an economy destroyed by the decline of coal.
And many of the locals want nothing to do with it.
Never mind that Dominion has been a defender of coal, buying it to fire its power plants by the train load and standing shoulder to shoulder with miners for years against the federal emissions standards that many in this region believe are ruining their way of life.
The utility’s shift toward renewable energy is apparently where the partners part ways – a path forward that may be too bruising for this fragile community’s conscience to bear.
“We’re losing our foothold in the coal industry and now they’re proposing … ‘Oh by the way, we’re going to take your beautiful land for renewable energy?’” opponent Charles Stacy said. “It is insulting, really.”
A deep mistrust of the federal government is ingrained in parts of this region, as are a fiercely guarded independence and pride in the heritage of coal mining. Yet Stacy and others insist that this battle is about more than any of that.
They agree that Appalachia must rebuild its sagging economy. But they believe that tourism is the answer – which is why, in their minds, marring East River Mountain with turbines they say would be 400 feet high is a terrible idea.
And so the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance banning “tall structures” – of which a wind turbine is one.
Like so many modern political battles, this one has found its way onto Facebook, where advocates for renewable energy – many of them liberal Democrats from the Washington suburbs – have gone up against defenders of Tazewell County’s vistas.
“Gotta love people who claim wind turbines are unsightly, but never objected to blowing up mountains!” wrote Lowell Feld, the author of the left-leaning blog Blue Virginia.
“Is it true that same ordinance also declares solar panels as ‘blight’ that require county regulation?” asked Scott Surovell, a Democratic state delegate from Fairfax County.
He’s referring to a section of the proposed zoning plan that would lump strip clubs, waste facilities, leather tanneries, pawnshops, nuclear power plants, junkyards and other unsavory neighbors in with commercial wind turbines and solar farms. Developers of all of these uses would require special permission in residential areas.
Stacy has jumped in, too – posting tough questions on Surovell’s Facebook page about how much campaign money he has accepted from Dominion. (The answer, Surovell replied somewhat vaguely, was “less than 1% of all the funds I’ve raised.”)
Stacy, an attorney and a Democrat, also rejects the argument that only his region has raked in the riches of coal.
“People who want to look at us hillbilly-type coal miners that are ripping the earth to pieces – all of that coal wasn’t for our benefit,” he said. “No one seemed to have a problem with that when we provided the coal to build the cities of the United States. Only now that the cities are constructed do we see complaints that coal is evil.”
Others are more sentimental. Jerry Gravely, who lives in the tiny town of Pocohantas, would rather see Dominion dig up the already scarred earth of strip mines than an unsullied ridge line.
Gravely said his great-grandfather, a Confederate soldier, came to Tazewell in the late 1800s when forests, cattle and sheep farms gave way to railroads and seemingly abundant coal mines. As a kid, he crossed East River Mountain to visit aunts and uncles.
“It’s a part of my heritage,” he said. “It was part of my father and grandfather’s heritage. You can’t replace something like that. Cut the trees down and move the dirt around, you can’t bring it back.”
The region has been trying to retool its economy for years, but with limited success. In the shadow of East River Mountain, Tazewell County spent $13.5 million to prepare a 680-acre business and technology park called Bluestone. A wide boulevard lined with lamp posts still waits for the high-paying jobs to appear.
Many locals also question the economic benefit of a wind farm, noting that federal subsidies for developing renewable energy are a motivating force for Dominion – but not necessarily one that will translate into longterm jobs or prosperity for the region.
Even David Botkins, a spokesman for Dominion, seemed to concede that point. Botkins said the 30 to 40 turbines planned for Tazewell would generate at most enough electricity to power 15,000 homes. Construction would take eight months and create 150 temporary jobs. Only 10 to 15 workers would be needed in the long run.
An independent report said the project could generate $10 million in economic development dollars over 20 years.
“It’s not that it wouldn’t come with challenges and be difficult to build with the roads and infrastructure needed to put it in place,” Botkins said. “But our assessment is that it would be the best onshore Virginia location.”
Stacy’s house stands at the end of a road that switches back and forth up a hill, past grazing cattle and a donkey named Donkey. His front yard affords an unbroken view of the East River Mountain. He wants it to stay that way.
The area’s natural beauty is another economic frontier that the county must explore, Stacy said – and is the real reason, he said, rather than opposition to clean energy, that locals are fighting the turbines. East River Mountain, and the area’s network of ATV trails, could bring tourists to Tazewell, he said – but not with a bank of windmills on the ridge.
Now a supervisor himself, Stacy is trying to bring zoning to his part of Tazewell in hopes of strengthening the road blocks to wind. Tazewell is one of only a handful of counties in Virginia without a zoning ordinance, which Stacy says makes the rural landscape vulnerable to bad developers and undesirable to good ones.
Dominion is undeterred – continuing to advocate for the project despite the tall structures ordinance. And the company has launched a pointed effort to influence the new zoning plan.
Dominion “remains very much convinced that Tazewell County has the necessary resources for development of utility scale wind project and we wish to preserve our option to responsibility develop this project in the future,” Jim Eck, vice president of business development, wrote in a June letter to the planning commission.
Rick Boucher, a Democrat who represented the region in Congress for nearly three decades, said he has not taken a stand on the wind farm but suggested that Dominion would be wise to offer incentives to Tazewell County in exchange for a more accommodating view of the project, which he said can co-exist with the mountain’s striking beauty.
“That’s frankly the adult way to address this,” he said.
Others said they outright support Dominion’s effort.
About 45 minutes west of Bluefield, Seth White tucks into a sandwich at the Bearded Moose, where a message on the door says, “Guns are permitted on the premises.” Through the window, he points to power lines and a cell tower – signs of progress that he says haven’t ruined the scenery one bit.
“Windmills make strange bedfellows,” he said. “I think protecting the environment is important. But I don’t see how building windmills is destroying the environment.”
White is the only county supervisor who still opposes the “tall structures” ordinance. The other official who voted ‘no’ said he changed his mind; he’s now running for countywide office.
For White, a conservative Republican, it’s about property rights. Dominion already owns about 2,600 acres, but would have to lease more land to build and run the project.
“The biggest people who lost out were the landowners just because someone said it doesn’t look pretty,” he said. “It boils down to – they didn’t want to look at it.”
The idea that people were against the project simply because it originated outside the area and would have used federal tax credits? Simply scare tactics, he said.
“They were using that argument to incite the coalminers,” he said.
White is no liberal. He’s quick to cite Solyndra, the solar-panel company that went bankrupt, leaving taxpayers liable for millions. But, he says, a wind farm won’t bring back coal, an industry whose legacy weighs heavy on his family.
Not far from the restaurant stands a memorial to coalminers engraved with thousands of names, including that of White’s grandfather, Kermit who he said was killed nearly 20 years ago when a piece of slate fell on his neck.
“Anyone who grew up here, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone without someone in the family in coal,” he said. “I know it’s the heart and blood of our region still. That’s still a part of who we are, but I realize we need to move beyond that.”
Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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