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Group opposing proposed Butte County wind farm meets today

At a town hall meeting in Newell today, an opposition group hopes to deflate a proposed $210 million wind farm northeast of this small Butte County city.

Brothers John and Patrick O’Meara, of Montrose, Colo.-based Wind Quarry LLC, submitted an application in May to the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission to build the 45-turbine, 103-megawatt wind farm spanning 62.5 square miles of privately owned land in Butte County.

The wind farm, officially named the Willow Creek Wind Energy Facility, would straddle Highway 212 on range land about 10 miles from Newell.

Electricity generated by the turbines would be carried by a 115-kilovolt Western Area Power Administration transmission line running through the proposed project area.

But Matt Rankin, of Saratoga, Wyo., spokesman for Stop Willow Creek Wind Project, cites the project’s potential for noise pollution, injury to livestock and wildlife and environmental damage to terrain and historic sites included in the proposed project area.

He said wind-farm developers are hoping to take advantage of federal tax credits and state incentives available for renewable energy projects.

“Wind farms are more of a tax shelter harvester and not green energy producers at this point,” Rankin said. “We’re not condemning wind energy. It’s just unfortunately been hijacked.”

Patrick O’Meara, chief executive officer of Wind Quarry LLC, said he and his brother John started the project well before incentives were passed.

“The recent tax benefits were just a welcome perk, but certainly not the basis for the project, which was to produce clean power for the country,” Patrick O’Meara said in an interview.

He said the proposed wind farm was originally to be built southeast of Newell, but was moved farther north to be less visible from Bear Butte and to be farther away from eagles nesting along the Belle Fourche River.

Turbines would be 440 feet tall from the ground to the vertical tip of a blade, but the nearest turbine would be 26 miles from Bear Butte, a religious site for many Native American groups.

“Bear Butte is sacred to dozens of tribes as far away as southern Oklahoma,” Rankin said. “The proposed wind farm would be visible from Bear Butte day and night.”

O’Meara said the turbines would be visible from a significant distance, but photo simulations showed the visual impact to be minimal for both Bear Butte and the city of Newell.

“Because of the topography, the turbines will only be partially visible from the town of Newell,” O’Meara said.

O’Meara said the wind farm would be away from residences, with improvements in technology over the past 10 to 15 years making newer turbines much quieter.

“Turbine noise dissipates very quickly once you move away from the site,” O’Meara said. “There won’t be any significant noise issue for any of the land owners in the area, including one landowner who is in opposition to the project.”

O’Meara said the proposed site has been evaluated by tribal monitors from an archaeological firm in Rapid City. No burial grounds are in the proposed area, and plans will be made to minimize damage to historic sites in the area.

Today’s meeting will start with a 90-minute showing of the 2010 documentary “Windfall” concerning the experience of an upstate New York town with the building of a wind farm.

Featured speakers will include Rankin, president of Prairie Wind & Solar; Winnie Peterson, president of Canton-based We-Care SD; and attorney Bernard Zuroff.

Wind Quarry LLC filed its application with the PUC on May 27. The utilities commission held hearings in Newell in July and has six months to grant or deny the permit, or grant it with conditions.

If given the go-ahead, O’Meara said plans are to have the wind farm operational by December of 2017, or perhaps by the end of 2016.