Proponents of wind power like to emphasize the environmental benefits of “clean energy.”
It does not deplete natural resources, we are told. It reduces carbon dioxide and it is better for public health.
But there is more to the story as evidenced by a brief filed Tuesday in regards to the Crocker Wind Farm, LLC’s project.
According to opponents, or “intervenors” as they are called, this wind farm has serious environmental impacts. At a minimum, opponents want the PUC to make wind proponents complete its environmental assessment.
At risk in the Crocker wind project are wetlands, native prairie, migratory birds and other wildlife.
As part of an application for a “Permit of a Wind Energy Facility” state law requires proponents to prove that it does not harm the environment.
The project lies in a Prairie Pothole region that has “nearly 1,400 wetlands and waterbodies.” Additionally, approximately “45 percent of the project area consists of undisturbed native grassland.”
There also are numerous U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) grass and wetlands easements in the area.
“Put simply, most of the project area is made up of areas with high conservation value,” the brief filed by Sioux Falls attorney Reece Almond said.
During the permitting process, both USFWS and the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GF&P) “have stated repeatedly how valuable the project area is in terms of conservation value and warned about the effects that will result from wind development in the area.”
The two agencies are charged with protecting sensitive land as well as migratory birds and wildlife.
The USFWS testified in earlier hearings that because it is a sensitive area, “the best means of avoiding impacts to wildlife is to avoid placing wind farms within high wildlife use areas.”
In other words, build it somewhere else.
The intervenors contend that the Crocker wind farm proponents chose to “ignore USFWS’s recommendation to examine alternative locations” and instead it “expanded its project into even more environmentally-sensitive areas to the north.”
This did not sit well with the USFWS. “In short,” the agency said, “The Crocker Wind Farm appears to be in a high wildlife use area and the proposed boundary expansion appears to exacerbate, rather than alleviate, direct and indirect risks posed to wildlife.”
Additionally, the Crocker wind farm proponents failed to adequately study the environmental impacts on waterfowl and wildlife.
In March 2016, GF&P told proponents that “at least two years of pre-construction surveys should be conducted….to evaluate potential impacts to wildlife.”
Proponents did a survey for one year on a small portion of the project. Although more information was collected regarding impacts to migratory birds such as eagles and whooping cranes and other waterfowl, results were not shared with the wildlife agencies, the brief said.
Grasslands were another area of concern. The two agencies urged the proponents to “avoid and minimize impacts to grasslands to the greatest extent possible,” and to “avoid placement of turbines and new roads in untilled native prairie.”
Despite these requests, “the majority of turbines are sited on grasslands,” the intervenors contend.
The agencies also urged the “complete avoidance” of locating turbines near wetlands “which may attract high numbers of migratory birds.”
Instead, the intervenors contend, “Crocker chose to expand the project to an area with an even higher concentration of wetlands.”
The agencies urged proponents to build turbines in cropland, but “80% of the turbines are planned to go elsewhere” instead of in cropland.
So how can wind proponents so easily thumb their nose at these agencies. Because they can, the brief said.
As far back as 2010, the USFWS urged the Crocker proponents to abandon the project because “of how valuable and sensitive the project area is from an environmental standpoint.
“Instead, it chose to charge forward with the project and even expand it to more environmentally-sensitive areas, because, after all, there is nothing the USFWS or SDGFP can do to stop the project from going forward,” the brief said.
The PUC now is the only agency standing between wind power and the environment. Odds are, the environment will lose.
Brad Johnson is a Watertown businessman and journalist who is active in state and local affairs.
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