Enviros challenge first large-scale wind farm in national forest

Source: Scott Streater • E&E • Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2012

Vermont Wind

The Deerfield Wind project calls for installing turbines as tall as 389 feet, making them visible to passing motorists on state Route 8 in Searsburg, Vt. Visual simulation courtesy of the Forest Service.

Environmentalists are challenging the Forest Service’s approval of the first utility-scale wind farm on national forestland, potentially delaying a project that was supposed to signal the agency’s readiness to assume a greater role in renewable energy development.

coalition of groups led by the Wilderness Society and Defenders of Wildlife filed an administrative appeal with the agency last month contesting its special-use permit authorizing the installation of 15 wind power turbines inside southwest Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest.

In a separate administrative appeal also filed last month, Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE) is also challenging the Forest Service’s decision to approve the 30-megawatt wind farm proposed by Portland, Ore.-based Iberdrola Renewables

“Clean, renewable energy is the right idea for Vermont, but approving the Deerfield Wind proposal was the wrong decision. It is simply the wrong place for this kind of project,” said Leanne Klyza-Linck, the Wilderness Society’s assistant vice president for Eastern regional conservation in Hinesburg, V

The objections threaten to delay or derail a landmark wind power project. The Obama administration chose it as one of a handful of infrastructure projects to be expedited through the permitting and environmental review process, and Forest Service officials say it’s part of a broader agency effort to begin developing large-scale wind projects on national forestland

The precedent-setting nature of the Deerfield Wind project underscores why the Forest Service needs to get it right, said Klyza-Linck.

“If you read through the final [environmental impact statement] and the decision record and our appeal, you’ll quickly see it was not handled well,” she said.

The groups charge that the EIS relied on company-paid consultants for analysis of the project’s impacts, that the nearly 400-foot-tall turbines would spoil a nearby wilderness and that potential explosions to blast holes to place the turbines would cause damage.

But Ethan Ready, a Green Mountain forest spokesman, defended the Forest Service’s project review process, noting that the agency spent nearly seven years developing a final EIS for the Deerfield Wind project.

“I feel that it’s been a very open and comprehensive review process, and this [EIS] is a product we’re very proud of,” he said. “We’ve really worked hard to engage the public and project partners and other organizations throughout the process, and we feel the final EIS is much stronger because of that.

VCE, however, is prepared to file a federal lawsuit if the agency upholds its decision and the project is allowed to proceed, said Annette Smith, VCE’s executive director in Danby, Vt

“We believe we have a very strong case,” Smith said.

Klyza-Linck said the Wilderness Society has not yet discussed legal action.

The concerns

The separate appeals filed by VCE and the coalition of groups lay out detailed cases against the wind project, with both appeals asserting that the Forest Service’s review of the project was inadequate and in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The Forest Service failed to comply with NEPA standards by, among other things, relying on Iberdrola’s paid consultants for the scientific analysis of project impacts to the national forest and the nearby George D. Aiken Wilderness Area, they said. The Forest Service also failed to consider project site alternatives outside of Green Mountain National Forest, in violation of NEPA, according to the appeals.

“I’m just so disappointed with the Forest Service,” Smith said.

VCE asserts in its 45-page challenge that the Forest Service simply failed to properly study a host of potential impacts to Green Mountain National Forest, and that placing wind turbines as tall as 389 feet atop ridges along the southern Green Mountains “will destroy the wilderness character” of the George D. Aiken Wilderness Area just 2 miles to the east.

And both appeals by VCE and the Wilderness Society-led coalition say the Forest Service failed to adequately analyze impacts from the possible use of explosives to blast out holes in the ridgelines to place the towering wind turbines.

Among the concerns associated with blasting are potentially “significant adverse impacts to groundwater, soils and drinking water supplies,” according to the VCE appeal.

“Yet the Forest Service made no attempt in its [EIS] to identify the specific areas where project blasting would occur, the amount of blasting necessary in those areas, or the extent of associated adverse environmental impacts,” the appeal said. “Nor did the Forest Service offer any explanation of why it failed to perform this analysis.”

The environmentalists also worry that the project would set a bad precedent for forests across the nation.

The Deerfield Wind project is one of 14 infrastructure projects that the White House said in October would be expedited through the permitting and environmental review processes in an effort to create jobs and bolster renewables development.

Forest Service officials say the project is a first step in the broader agency effort promoting wind projects. Indeed, the Forest Service in September issued final policy directives designed to guide forest supervisors in siting and permitting wind energy projects on National Forest System lands (Land Letter, Jan. 12).

The Obama administration list that prioritized the Deerfield Wind project also included a proposed 100-megawatt project that would string together 52 turbines along a 7-mile stretch of Cleghorn Ridge in California’s San Bernardino National Forest. That project, which would be the second utility-scale wind farm on national forestland, is still in the early stages of review.

What comes next

Both appeals, in accordance with agency policy, were sent to Eastern Regional Forester Chuck Myers, who is based in Milwaukee. The appeals by VCE and the environmental coalition ask Myers to throw out the record of decision (ROD) approving the wind project and deny the special-use permit authorizing Iberdrola to begin construction of the wind farm along two forest ridgelines

Myers, who must render a decision by April 9, could uphold the Forest Service’s approval decision, or send the ROD back to the Green Mountain National Forest and require officials there to conduct additional analysis on specific points where he determines the appellants have made a convincing case, said Ready, the Green Mountain forest spokesman.

Ready said the Forest Service could not comment on specific points in the pending appeals until a final decision is made. Neither would Iberdrola, said Paul Copleman, a company spokesman

But Copleman said in an emailed statement to Greenwire that the company remains “confident the decisions reached in the ROD are well supported and [looks] forward to moving through this part of the process.”

Ready said Green Mountain Forest Supervisor Colleen Madrid has reached out to the environmental groups and invited them to attend informal meetings, beginning this week, to see if any major issues can be resolved and a lengthy project delay avoided.

“The meetings offer us the opportunity to discuss and resolve issues of concern,” he said

But Klyza-Linck, the Wilderness Society official, said she’s not expecting much.

“It’s always good to have these conservations and to share information,” she said. “But I’m not expecting any resolutions.”