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Ontario cancels nearly built $200M wind farm over threat to bat populations

Ontario’s Environment Minister has cancelled a $200-million wind farm south of Ottawa – one almost fully constructed – because the giant turbines pose a threat to nearby bat populations.

In a Dec. 4 letter, Minister Jeff Yurek said he’s revoking the approval given to the Nation Rise Wind Farm, which has already erected a number of the 29 planned turbines in a rural area near the villages of Crysler and Finch in the Township of North Stormont.

The surprising decision comes about seven months after construction began on the 100-megawatt project, proposed by EDP Renewables, a subsidiary of a multinational with North American headquarters in Texas.

Yurek wrote to Margaret Benke, an appellant and leading critic of Nation Rise, that he was concerned about the effect of 200-metre high turbines on colonies of Hoary bats and Big and Little Brown bats, the latter being listed on Ontario’s Species at Risk list.

“In my view, the harm will be both serious and irreversible to animal life given the relatively small bat species populations in the local area.”

The minister also said he has the authority to “confirm, alter or revoke” a January decision of the Environmental Review Tribunal “as I consider in the public interest.” He also said he had to consider the potential harm to the wildlife “in the context of the minimal contribution the project is likely to have on the electricity supply in Ontario.”

The wind farm had caused deep divisions in the community as the township had twice voted against being a “willing host” for the project.

While some 70 property owners were happy about leasing land to EDP, many others were concerned about noise, the visual disruption and the possible impacts on health and the water table in the area.

Benke is a founding member of the grassroots organization Concerned Citizens of North Stormont. She appealed the approval from the Review Tribunal, which had held nine days of hearings in the fall of 2018.

The retired principal, a lifelong resident of the area, said she had to read the Yurek letter twice to make sure she didn’t misunderstand the stunning outcome.

“I was thrilled,” she said Monday. “There is no real mitigation measure to protect the bats.” She’s been fighting the battle for more than four years and estimates Concerned Citizens has spent in excess of $100,000 to fight the plan.

EDP Renewables said it “strongly objects” to Yurek’s decision. It has, however, halted construction and is assessing “all potential legal actions” because the project was already approved by Yurek’s own’s ministry and ratified by the tribunal.

The Conservative government of Doug Ford – and the premier himself – have been critical of so-called industrial wind farms but this was the last one approved by the departing Liberal government in May 2018, only days before the election writ was dropped.

In July 2018, only weeks after taking office, the Ford government nixed the Green Energy Act and cancelled 758 early-stage renewable-energy projects.

EDP says the project has created more than 230 construction jobs and, over the next 30 years, would pump some $45 million into the local economy through municipal taxes, a community benefit fund, charitable contributions and landowner fees. It has already built a network of roads and laid a great deal of electrical cable in the area.

Since signing a contract in 2016, EDP has done a number of studies related to the effects of the wind farm, including noise models, a wildlife analysis, geological work, and following regulated setbacks of 550 metres from the nearest house.

It said experts had provide evidence the project would have “no material adverse effects” on the natural environment, including the bat population.

“Decisions of this nature should be based on science and law, yet there was no expert testimony or evidence presented at the Tribunal or to the Minister that would provide a reasonable rationale for the Minister’s decision.”

Opponents were thrilled to hear about the reversal, as even their own MPP had told them the project was too advanced to stop.

“I am ecstatic,” said Ruby Mekker, 68, a retired educator and one of the project’s most vocal opponents. “I can’t believe that they actually sided in favour of the people. I’m so thrilled.”

She says a handful of wells in the area have already had problems suspected to be connected to the wind farm infrastructure.

About six of the turbines are fully built and another half-dozen have the towers erected. The project was to be finished in the first quarter of 2020.