Wind Farms Sprout Controversy

By the end of 2008, Pennsylvania will have 10 wind farms generating electricity. These farms are built without any state regulations. Instead, wind companies and the state work together to find what they consider to be appropriate sites. Pennsylvania officials say this voluntary agreement, as itís called, is a flexible set of rules that can change as the state's knowledge of wind farms grows. But critics say the agreement does more to protect companies than the environment. The Allegheny Front's Lisa Ann Pinkerton Reports.

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OPEN: By the end of 2008, Pennsylvania will have 10 wind farms generating electricity. These farms are built without any state regulations. Instead, wind companies and the state work together to find what they consider to be appropriate sites. Pennsylvania officials say this voluntary agreement, as itís called, is a flexible set of rules that can change as the state's knowledge of wind farms grows. But critics say the agreement does more to protect companies than the environment. The Allegheny Front's Lisa Ann Pinkerton Reports.

Along the western edge of the Appalachians there's a ridgeline that stretches from State College all the way to Maryland. In many places it boasts breathtaking views of rolling hills and farmland...

TOM DICK: We're right on the Allegheny Front, where it drops off about 2200 feet, we're seeing Fulton, Bedford County, HuntingtonÖ

But veterinarian Tom Dick is more interested in the view above him, that the one below. Heís a part of a Audubon Society Hawk Watch that counts the 16 species of raptors that migrate overhead.

TOM DICK: The other day when I was counting I had 620 hawks come though.

On this warm fall day, Dick and 20 other bird watchers have counted 150 broad winged hawks. Theyíre flying by Shaffer Mountain, a section of the Allegheny Front thatís about 15 miles south of Johnstown. The hawks are soaring so high in the sky, they look like little black specs against white clouds. Suddenly, bird flying much closer grabs their attention.

WOMAN: Sheís threatening
TOM DICK: Have you got one?

As it comes into view, the white head and expansive brown wings mean it could only be a Bald Eagle. As he watches it glide effortlessly on the wind, Dick says this moment illustrates why Shaffer Mountain is one of the best places in North America for bird watching.

TOM DICK: The wind is coming out just right, they found the lane, and theyíre making no movement at all. They have a long migration to central and South America, and they want to make it as effortless as possible, so they're using the energy of the wind.

Less than a mile away, the wind turbine manufacturer, Gamesa, plans to do the same thing. Itís proposed a 30-turbine wind farm on 3 ridges of Shaffer Mountain. Dick is against the project, because he says the fast spinning blades could kill some of the birds migrating past the turbines.

TOM DICK: Putting them on migratory corridors is really, really discouraged by US Fish and Wildlife. They just donít want to see them on there, but thereís no teeth in the laws today.

The laws Dick refers to are NOT traditional regulations. Instead, Pennsylvania sights wind farms using a Voluntary Agreement signed by wind developers. Bill Capoulillez, at the Pennsylvania Game Commission, says a decade ago Pennsylvania searched the country for examples of wind sighting regulations, but the technology was so new to the US, they couldn't find any.

BILL CAPOULILLEZ: It was quickly evident that there were more questions than there were answers...We did not have nor do we have good information with regard to primary migratory fly routes and potential impacts that could happen in the air.

Without real data, Pennsylvania couldnít write regulations. So the state offered wind developers protection from liability, if they would vigorously study proposed wind sights before the stateís Department of Environmental Protection granted permits. Capoulillez says this brings the true cost of a project to the forefront or stop them before they begin.

BILL CAPOULILLEZ: It actually sets forward bat and bird monitoring protocols. And it allows for companies to come into an area having a better understanding as to what itís gong to cost them to go and work through these issues and that that information is going to be good information that they can use to make decisions.

As new data on bird and bat migration comes to light, Capoulillez says, the agreement can be modified, a luxury formal regulations don't allow. The Game Commission still has the authority to fine a developer if wildlife is adversely impacted by a project. However, Capoulillez says the agency doesnít really know how many deaths from wind turbines are acceptable.

BIL CAPOULILLEZ: I donít know whatís normal and acceptable takings anymore than I know whatís acceptable takings from cell towers or electrical transmission lines, or airports or bridges or cities.

Concerning Shaffer Mountain, Gamesa Spokesman Tim Volk claims the company's survey data suggests the birds that fly by the Hawk Watch sight arenít necessarily flying close to the wind farmís proposed location. Yet, Volk says some birds do fly directly over the project area.

TIM VOLK: So that lead us to set some of the windmills back about 400 feet to avoid any potential impact to them.

But those who oppose the Shaffer Mountain project say the voluntary agreement allows Gamesa to ignore data gathered by the Audubon Society and keep their own studies secret.

Standing alongside one of Shaffer Mountain's exceptional value streams, landowner Jack Buchan says a Confidentiality Clause in the Voluntary agreement shuts out the public.

JACK BUCHAN: These secret studies that they have, are what DEP is going to base their decision on. The secret studies that we can't get our hands on and that we cannot comment on.

But Game Commission Spokesman Capoulillez says that's a misconception. He says there is proprietary information the Game Commission allows a company to keep secret. But he says, the final permitting process though the Department of Environmental Protection includes hearings and public comment periods.

BILL CAPOULILLEZ: Whatever information the DEP asked them to provide in regard to that permit review would be public information. The only thing that would be confidential would be the location of known threatened or endangered species.

Meanwhile, another agency is considering adopting the Voluntary Agreement. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources may open state forest land to wind development. In addition to timber and mineral extraction on these lands, DCNR Spokesman John Quigley says to reduce Pennsylvaniaís reliance on Fossil Fuels its only logical that the state consider wind energy.

JOHN QUIGLEY: If we are going to be about conservation and sustainability DCNR has to walk the talk. So we have to look at whether or not we can site these clean energy facilities on State Forest land.

He says 98 percent of State Forest land, including old growth forests and cherished vistas, are already off the table.

JOHN QUIGLEY: So we're talking a very small universe that might have some development potential.

The 37,000 acres still open to development are a part of the Appalachian Mountains, mostly in southwestern and South Central Pennsylvania. If the DCNR plans to go ahead with development (a decision that could come by the end of the year) it would still need the blessing of Governor Rendell and the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Back on Shaffer Mountain, landowner Buchan says the stateís Voluntary Agreement doesnít go far enough to protect Pennsylvaniaís wilderness and wildlife.

JACK BUCHAN: We need regulations and we need them now before this area is destroyed forever.

Buchan says ,unfortunately for Shaffer Mountain and the four other proposed wind farms in the state, , it takes more time to pass state regulations than it does to build a wind farm.

For the Allegheny Front, I'm Lisa Ann Pinkerton