The Greater Johnstown Water Authority anticipates soon needing to make about $20 million in Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection-mandated upgrades to North Fork Dam and Dalton Run Dam.
Chairman Don Hall II said the board will try to acquire PennVEST and USDA Rural Utilities Service funding. But that money would need to be repaid.
So, the authority is looking at ways to generate revenue, including the possibility of developing a windmill farm on the section of Laurel Ridge that, if created, could bring in upward of $200,000 per year to the GJWA.
“As unpopular as it may be, we are in a mandatory consent program with DEP to renovate the North Fork Dam,” Hall said. “That, conservatively, is going to cost about $13 million. It could be higher, but that’s the number we’re working with now. We have already been told that upon completion of that, the Dalton Run Dam will be the next reno work that will be mandated by DEP.
“They are estimating now, in today’s dollars, that that will be $7 (million) to $8 million to reno that. So, the water authority is looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million worth of addition debt over the next 10 years. We are looking at every opportunity, every possibility of raising that money or paying the debt down.”
Managing the debt
Hall said the proposed windmill farm is “a way – not necessarily the way – but it is a way of being able to manage that debt.”
He made his comments during a GJWA meeting on Thursday that was attended by about 50 customers. More than a dozen individuals spoke in opposition to the plan that could lead to Competitive Power Ventures installing possibly eight turbines. Nobody in attendance offered public support.
CPV has already signed a lease to use the authority’s property, located near Laurel Ridge State Park, Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, state game lands and watershed. The company would still need to conduct studies to determine the feasibility of building a wind farm on the ridge – a decision that is one or two years away, according to a letter provided by CPV.
One speaker, Tom Cushing, compared two possible ways of getting money to pay for the dams – bring in about $210,000 from the windmill farm or charge each of GJWA’s 21,000 customers an additional $10 per year.
“You’re willing to change the face of that mountain for 83 cents a month per customer,” Cushing said. “It means lot to a lot of people to preserve that because it’s the biggest section of preserved land we have in this area, especially in Upper Yoder Township. We know you need money. We know it’s going to cost a lot more than that – and the bills are going to go up a lot more than that – due to capital improvements. And we know it’s a challenge.
“Eighty-three cents a month to change the face of the mountain, to upset the customer base or to put the watershed at risk. I know you have to serve your customers. I absolutely know that.
“And I know money is a big issue. But isn’t protecting the watershed more important than 83 cents a month?”
State Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, has been an outspoken critic of the plan, citing concerns about the environmental and economic impacts while also asking the authority to look for other sources of funding.
Michael Kerr, GJWA’s resident manager, said he reached out to Burns’ office to check into the possibility of applying for grants to help with the dam projects, but did not receive a response.
“I did contact Rep. Burns multiple times and tried to get in touch with his grant facilitator about raising money specifically for these projects and was never contacted back,” Kerr said. “I left messages with him. He made the accusation that we’re not doing our job, that there’s grant money everywhere to be had. If there’s grant money everywhere to be had, he’s the representative of the state and of the area here. I’d love to hear where he knows it’s at. And we would most certainly pursue it.”
GJWA signed the lease after a Cambria County judge determined the proposed development “fits into the parameters of the original deed in so much that there’s not a reasonable expectation that this would harm the watershed,” according to Kerr.
Since then, opponents of windmill development on the ridge have mobilized, including holding a town hall that was attended by more than 160 individuals at Westmont Hilltop High School on Wednesday. Also, recently, the St. Clair Tremont Trap & Field Club passed a motion to oppose the installation of windmills on the ridge, according to Matt Gladis, a board member for the sportsmen’s club, which has about 1,000 members.
“Just so you guys understand what you’re up against here, we have a lot of power here right now,” Gladis told the authority.
Burns reiterated the same point, saying, “As the public here, you can see they don’t want this.”
Audience members asked questions about the possible impact on tourism and the environment, including the Dalton Run watershed.
“That land is owned by the public,” Save Laurel Ridge member Dan Miller said. “It’s owned by your customers. It’s owned by the citizens. That land was given to you to manage in trust that you would make the best decision possible to maintain that land. And, now, you have entered into an agreement with a corporation that is driven by profit. They will do the minimum environmental standards that need to be done for them to make the most money. To say there is no risk to the watershed is just not true.”
GJWA Solicitor William Gleason Barbin countered: “There are no reasonable expectations that there will be any harm from these windmills into the watershed. This is not an environmental issue.
“It may be an issue about how it affects somebody’s home, how it affects how somebody perceives their use of the public land. But it’s not harming the environment. There’s no evidence of that.”
The meeting was the first public interaction between the entire board and a group of organized opponents.
“I think that there were a lot of good points made today by the people that were in attendance,” Kerr said. “These are things that we will consider. And we will take these concerns to CPV. A lot of these concerns are things that were written into the agreement, that are already taken into consideration.”
Authority officials responded to questions for about an hour.
“What I heard – or what they have said – it’s pretty much going through, but I guess we can still keep fighting about it,” said Eric Blackburn, who lives near the area where the wind farm would be placed.
“There are a lot more questions. They didn’t answer a lot of questions, which we were asking.”
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