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Wind energy development caused millions in road damage

MOUND VALLEY – A road use agreement between Neosho County and wind developer Apex Clean Energy did not keep roads from sustaining millions of dollars in damage and the developer has not repaired them, persons attending Tuesday’s wind development meeting at the Mound Valley Community Center heard.

A report from engineering firm Kirkham and Michael, hired by Neosho County to evaluate roads after construction of the Neosho Ridge Wind project, found $4,960,464 in damage to roads in the project footprint. The damage amount represents the cost of the repairs if they were bid out to road contractors. A five-page summary of the larger 1,000-page full report lists 49 areas that need attention in the development. Apex is to repair roads after construction and return them to pre-construction condition or better.

Neosho County commissioners hope to meet with an Apex official who is supposed to be overseeing road repairs and a representative of Kirkham and Michael in the near future. Time is an issue because the roads should be fixed and returned to county maintenance within six months of construction completion, and Neosho County commissioners said Tuesday they aren’t sure what that date was or if it has happened.

The issues in Neosho County amplify the need for transparency and due diligence if the Germany utility RWE Renewables is allowed to develop a wind farm in Labette County, those attending the meeting in Mound Valley heard Tuesday night. RWE is proposing a 50 to 75 turbine development between Douglas and Meade roads and 19000 and 8000 roads in western Labette County. Mound Valley is within that footprint. The road use agreement allows the developer to use county roads to move equipment and machinery during turbine construction.

Rural Erie resident Shirley Estrada answered an inquiry Tuesday evening in Mound Valley about roads in Neosho County. This was during a question and answer phase of the three-hour meeting. She had also addressed the issue with the Neosho County Commission earlier Tuesday.

Estrada said Apex representatives assured commissioners for three years that roads would be returned to their pre-construction status or better. For the last two years, commissioners have heard complaints about road conditions in the Neosho Ridge footprint. Many of the problems were not fixed by Apex as required by the road use agreement. Apex has moved into Bourbon and Crawford counties, where it is developing another industrial wind complex.

Estrada said Neosho County hired Kirkham and Michael to inspect the roads and issue a report. The huge report was the product of that contract, but the document is a work in progress and the damage amount could go higher, Estrada said.

“So Apex has not done what they said they were going to do,” she said. “This is our next chapter.”

Estrada said Neosho commissioners were warned that this could happen.

“The same thing will happen to Labette County. It has happened to others over and over, but that information somehow gets lost or is not made public,” Estrada said.

She said the kicker is that Apex put up a $500,000 bond as part of the road use agreement. While that seemed like a lot of money at the time, it’s not nearly enough when the county is looking at nearly $5 million in road repairs.

“So stay tuned folks. It’s not over. It’s just the beginning,” Estrada said.

Apex developed Neosho Ridge and Liberty Utilities now operates it.

Earlier in May, Chris Weatherford from Apex met with Neosho County commissioners and told them contractor IEA would remain onsite to finish up road work, ditch cleaning and culvert replacement. He estimated road work would be done in June. Neosho Ridge is now tax exempt and the first $1 million payment to the county in May marked the substantial completion of the project. Commissioners in that meeting OK’d an amendment to the contribution agreement on Neosho Ridge to accept the first payment as the project is mostly but not fully completed. Neosho Ridge will be tax exempt for 10 years.

On Tuesday, Neosho County Road and Bridge Director Mike Brown told commissioners during a discussion about road conditions that Apex wanted him to accept the roads back.

“I have not accepted anything back from them. Not a single road,” Brown said. He said the county had to fix some of the roads because of their condition, and those repairs would be billed to Apex. One road in the footprint was so bad it was impassable. “Somebody actually got stuck in one of the roads. A car. It was that bad,” Brown told commissioners. He also said Apex had not done the road work recommended by the engineers.

Commissioners are concerned if the project is actually completed because a six-month clock on road repairs begins running then.

“I think the time to ask them what they are going to do and ask them when they are going to complete it … I think that part is gone. We need to start telling them, ‘This is what you’re going to do or these are the consequences. Expect a bill. Here’s our counsel’s phone number.’ The time to continue these pleasantries (is) over. Because we do have an expiration within the RUA of when we can call on this. The bond does have an end date as well,” County Clerk Heather Elsworth told commissioners Tuesday. In talking to engineering company representative Tanner Yost, she said, “This is the largest amount of money he’s ever quoted back on a post construction report in all of his wind farm entities he’s covered. That is really scary to me. Time is not on our side with this.”

Some of the nearly 60 people who attended Tuesday’s meeting in Mound Valley had other questions about wind development, the proposed project in Labette County and the project in Neosho County.

One question was the impact from wind developments on wildlife.

John Williamson of Altamont has done research on this and other topics related to wind energy. He said case studies indicate turbines have a long-term impact on wildlife. Deer populations move out of these areas and migrating birds avoid them, and in time the predators that stalk these animals will move when the remaining food sources dry up.

Production tax credits help make wind development feasible and those will sunset in 2022. This is a per-kilowatt-hour tax credit for electricity generated using qualified energy resources. Dave Oas said Congress may extend the credits in the fall. He hopes the U.S. follows Canada’s lead. Canadians resist wind development and politicians are beginning to listen to them. He said wind development does not work without the tax credits.

Bryan Coover of Neosho County answered an inquiry about where the electricity would go that would be generated in Labette County. He said the Southwest Power Pool would get the electricity. He said the power pool has invested billions over the last 15 years to improve transmission lines and connections, in part, to move wind energy around.

He said the grid has enough power getting to it now from wind developments in the state and there is no more capacity to accept more power from the wind farms at this time. He said wind farms in western Kansas have been shut down because there is no place for the power to go. He didn’t say if this was a temporary shutdown.

So power generated here would go out of state to the east. There is a 364,000-volt transmission line that runs to east of Parsons and another that is about 5 or 6 miles from Edna. Any wind development would have to be within 7 miles of these transmission lines, so the Labette County project would have to develop a substation close to Edna to connect to these lines.

Coover said the first issue commissioners should address is the health of residents. When Apex first met with commissioners in Neosho County its representatives said only 9% of the people living in the footprint would have difficulty sleeping at night because of turbine noise. Sleep is critical to health, he said.

“So the wind farm people think that 9% of you will be so miserable that you will leave. That alone is enough of a deal breaker for me,” Coover said.

He and his wife live on the southern edge of Neosho Ridge and have a turbine within 3,000 feet of their home. The setback distance in Labette County, if it remains as the number placed in a county resolution, would be 1,600 feet. Apex told residents in the footprint the noise would be twice what the World Health Organization says is a safe amount.

“These things are too loud to live by,” he said. They cause a short-term annoyance and long-term health problems, he said.

“Your lives are at risk here. They really are,” Coover said.

He invited attendees to sit on his front porch and listen to the turbines. The low frequency sound can be felt. He’s been startled awake at night by the wump, wump, wump sound of the turbines on a number of occasions, he said.

A story in Friday’s Sun will report more about Tuesday’s meeting in Mound Valley.