The provincial government has withdrawn the renewable energy approval authorizing the creation of the Nation Rise Wind Farm.
Environment Minister Jeff Yurek announced the decision in a letter to wind farm opponents, who had appealed the approval of the project to him.
The withdrawal of the approval means the project will come to a halt, despite the fact the wind farm is largely complete, with several wind turbines erected and ready to begin generating power.
Yurek said he decided to revoke Nation Rise’s renewable energy approval out of concern for the wind farm’s impact on local bat populations.
Doing so meant he was overturning the decision of Environmental Review Tribunal, which held weeks-long hearings to look at objections to the project on such issues The tribunal had ruled such risks were negligible.
“This was not an easy decision to make,” wrote Yurek. “While I agree with most of the conclusions of the tribunal, I disagree with the tribunal’s conclusions with respect to the degree of harm that will be caused to local bat species by the project.
“I am therefore altering the tribunal’s decision based on my conclusion that the project will cause serious and irreversible harm to bats, and I revoke the approval.”
During the tribunal hearings last year, evidence was heard about two bat colonies who were studied prior to construction. The colonies included big brown bats, hoary bats and little brown bats, which are on the Species at Risk Ontario List.
In his decision, Yurek said the evidence said to him the wind farm would seriously harm the population of bats because of deaths caused by them being hit by the turbine blades. While he admits knowing the full extent of the harm is impossible, he nonetheless decided to err of the side of caution.
A community group called the Concerned Citizens of North Stormont has been fighting the wind farm project since its inception and was the plaintiff in the tribunal hearings last year, which originally challenged the validity of the renewable energy approval. When the tribunal’s decision rejected their arguments, they appealed to the minister, an approach that had paid off.
The group is understandably pleased with the minister’s decision. Their spokesperson, Margaret Benke, thanked everyone who supported them financially and with information during their efforts to fight the project.
“This power project has been very divisive for our community; now North Stormont can again be a good place to grow,” said Benke in a statement.
The company behind the wind farm, EDP Renewables, on the other hand, is quite distressed by the decision and is planning to take the matter to court. The company has confirmed that with the minister’s decision, all construction on the project will have to be halted, despite how close it was to completion.
In a statement provided to the Standard-Freeholder, EDP blasted the minister for such a startling about-face on the project and accusing him of making an unscientific decision.
“This unprecedented decision means the (approval) that was issued by the minister’s own staff, defended by ministry legal counsel and subsequently ratified by the Environmental Review Tribunal is no longer in effect,” reads a statement from the company. “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.
“(We are) wholly perplexed by this unfounded decision on the part of the minister, it (are) prepared to pursue all legal courses of action in response and fully trust the Canadian justice system as a means of positioning EDPR to resume the construction activities at Nation Rise Wind Farm.”
The issue of what risk the wind farm poses to bat populations was discussed at length during tribunal hearings held in Finch, in August of 2018.
EDP Renewables brought in biologist Andrew Ryckman to speak about his findings from a study that used acoustic monitoring to gauge the amount of bats flying in the area, as well as seeking out roosting areas. His conclusion, he told the tribunal, was that the risk to bats caused by the turbines was negligible.
Reached on Monday afternoon, Ryckman declined to comment, saying he needed more time to try to understand the rationale for the minister’s decision before he could offer an opinion.
The provincial government’s decision to halt the wind farm project comes after it cancelled 758 contracts for existing renewable energy projects, out of concern that green energy was driving up electricity bills in the province. When a decision is made to revoke an approval over environmental concerns, the next step is often to hold a hearing to find a remedy for the problem. But in his decision, Yurek seems to suggest that there is nothing that can be done to mitigate the problems with Nation Rise.
“Even if these conditions could be improved to limit harm to local bats, harm will still occur,” wrote the minister. “Considering this harm together in the context of the minimal contribution the project is likely to have on electricity supply in Ontario, in my view it is not appropriate to confirm the decision of the tribunal, but rather amend it to revoke the approval.”
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