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Wind farm talk dominates county meeting

OSWEGO – Commissioners in Labette County want to form a committee to research wind farms and issues related to them and are considering other options that may include a moratorium.

The five-member committee would include the county Public Works director, one citizen from each of the three commission districts and perhaps another county employee who oversees zoning issues at Great Plains Industrial Park. A decision on these issues could come soon.

Commissioners discussed wind farm development in Labette County at length on Monday, including an hour visit with Neosho County Commissioner Paul Westhoff. Commissioner Lonie Addis asked Westhoff to attend over the entire board because Westhoff had been involved in the Neosho Ridge Wind LLC development from the start, while the other two commissioners were appointed this year after other commissioners resigned.

Commissioners have discussed wind farms periodically this year after a representative from E.ON, a utility company in Germany with an office in Austin, Texas, dropped off a business card. The discussion became more frequent after Commissioner Fred Vail and the county courthouse received letters this month from RWE. RWE is also a German utility company that develops renewable energy and bought the renewable energy assets from E.ON earlier this month. The representative who wrote the letter is in the county this week to visit with landowners about leasing land to the utility for wind turbines. Commission Chairman Doug Allen was to meet with him on Monday.

Westhoff discussed the Apex Clean Energy wind farm in southwest Neosho County and the 139 turbines it will have installed. The turbines will be up to 607 feet tall. Westhoff said all but two of the turbines are in his commission district. Road work is underway to prepare for the heavy equipment and wind turbine parts that will be hauled to all the sites.

Westhoff said he was neutral on Neosho Ridge to begin with, but he changed his mind after he conducted more research and study. Neosho County commissioners asked for studies on health impacts from turbines, infrasound, shadow flicker and wildlife impacts but never received anything from Apex, Westhoff said. Neosho County commissioners recently imposed a moratorium on future wind farm development, but that action will not impact Neosho Ridge.

Westhoff shared with commissioners copies of agreements between Neosho County and Apex. One agreement dealt with decommissioning, or taking down, the turbines once they’ve quit working or reached the end of their useful life. The contribution agreement, transmission agreement, the moratorium recently enacted and the road maintenance agreement were also included.

Allen asked about taking the turbines down. He asked if there was an escrow account set up so money would be available for decommissioning, a process that some estimate could be expensive, well into six figures. Allen said off-shore oil platforms had decommissioning agreements, but after the companies harvesting oil from the ocean floor sold the platforms, the last company owning them sometimes ended up in bankruptcy.

Labette County Counselor Brian Johnson asked Westhoff if commissioners received copies of lease agreements between landowners and Apex so that commissioners would know if landowners accepted any responsibility for decommissioning the turbine in 20 years. Westhoff said he wasn’t sure.

Johnson also asked if the Kansas Corporation Commission reviewed the decommissioning agreements and other contracts. They had not, Westhoff said. The Neosho County counselor and a Wichita attorney negotiated contracts with Apex, he said, and Apex paid their legal fees. Commissioner Addis didn’t think that payment arrangement should have been allowed.

Johnson also asked if Apex gave commissioners a completion of construction date. Westhoff said no. The agreement shows that Apex will deliver to the county a performance bond or letter of credit that will fund decommissioning of the wind farm, but this bond won’t be available until the 10-year anniversary of completion of construction of the wind farm.

The agreement details that proceeds of this bond or credit will fund the removal of the generating unit down to 4 feet below the surface and the restoration of the land. It does not mention the concrete poured nine to 10 feet deep in the ground to support the turbine. The decommissioning is not to extend beyond 365 days following the decommissioning date, the agreement reads.

If the company doesn’t complete decommissioning, the county could pursue that and seek reimbursement from the bond for the costs.

Commissioner Allen, who practices law in California, said he doubted the agreement would survive the first sale of the wind farm. Some companies develop wind farms and then sell them to another utility, commissioners have heard.

Johnson said the worst case scenario is that completion of construction date keeps getting kicked down the road and never set as the wind farm changes ownership.

Commissioners also asked about setbacks in Neosho Ridge and members of the public attending the session asked about the concrete pads that support the wind turbines. Daniel Chapman, who built bridges for the railroad before retiring, asked if there would be drill shafts filled with concrete under the pad to stabilize it. Westhoff didn’t know.

Mel Hass, who also attended the meeting, said the concrete pads support turbines near his former property in Illinois didn’t have the shafts for concrete to stabilize the structures. Chapman and Hass said they’ve seen wind turbines sway before.

Westhoff said the setbacks, the distance from property lines or homes to the turbine, were 1,640 feet from non-participating homes and 1,025 feet from non-participating landowners’ property lines. Initially, Apex wanted the distances from non-participating property lines to be 1,000 feet, but many found that unacceptable. Westhoff said the final figure of 1,025 feet was disappointing.

Westhoff said the money coming to the county from Apex is nice, but he cautioned commissioners to tread carefully. If he knew in 2016 what he knows now, he said he would have fought harder to keep wind development out of the county.

“Whatever you guys decide is going to be your legacy,” Westhoff said.

Addis said commissioners just want to gather information.

“We don’t want to be anti, we don’t want to be pro. We just want to gather information and be very, very open with what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Addis said.

Labette County commissioners asked Johnson if a moratorium would be possible in Labette County. Johnson said it would be.

He said home rule authority would give commissioners options. A moratorium is possible to allow for a time of study for an appointed committee, but commissioners may have to set up limited county zoning that restricts wind farm development related to setbacks from structures or structure height.

A planning and zoning commission would be needed if limited zoning was enacted, he said.