EAGLE ROCK – At a public library not far from the mountain on which it hopes to build a row of giant wind turbines, Apex Clean Energy took comments pro and con Wednesday evening.
The two-hour public comment session was part of the energy company’s application for a permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which is responsible for evaluating the proposed wind farm’s impact on the natural resources of North Mountain in Botetourt County.
About 50 people attended the meeting. There were no official presentations, as comments were taken in writing, recorded or aired during informal conversations as the crowd milled around poster board displays that Apex officials set up at the Eagle Rock Library.
Although the meeting’s format made it difficult to gauge public sentiment, a sizable group of opponents wearing bright yellow vests were a conspicuous presence.
Critics say the spinning blades of 25 turbines proposed by Apex – which at up to 550 feet tall would be about the height of the Washington Monument – will kill birds and bats, destroy their habitat and clog streams with runoff from the cleared mountain slopes.
But supporters – who say harvesting clean energy from the wind will reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants – outnumbered opponents more than 2 to 1 at hearings earlier this year when the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors granted a special exception permit for the project.
Although the next level of scrutiny falls to the DEQ, there were no representatives from the agency sighted at Wednesday’s meeting.
“DEQ’s absence is representative of the agency’s carelessness in its consideration of industrial wind turbine development,” opponent Tammy Belinsky said.
Yet under rules that govern the regulation of small wind turbine projects in Virginia, the applicant is responsible for gathering public comments and submitting them to the DEQ.
Since a monthlong public comment period began May 5, Apex has received less than 20 written comments, company officials said. That does not include the input it received at Wednesday’s meeting, which will be part of a final report to the state.
As part of its application to the DEQ, Apex has outlined steps that it is willing to take to reduce the wind farm’s environmental impact. Those measures include turning the turbines off when their blades are most likely to strike flying bats.
Although the DEQ will have the final say, Apex is willing to curb the turbines from dusk to dawn every year between May 15 and Nov. 15, when bats are foraging for food. But they could remain on when the wind is blowing faster than 15 mph or when the temperature drops below 38 degrees, conditions that keep the bats grounded.
Some opponents are skeptical that there is enough wind on North Mountain to meet projections by Apex, which says the wind farm will generate enough electricity to power up to 20,000 homes.
“It’s a meager wind opportunity and it has very high environmental costs,” said Lee Merrill, co-president of the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council.
After the public comment period ends in early June, DEQ will have 90 days to render a decision.
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