Whistling ridge wind farm petitions denied

December 31, 2011

The proposed Whistling Ridge wind power project slated to be sited near White Salmon on land owned by SDS Lumber and Broughton Lumber, and in view of Hood River, is one step further along the path to construction; albeit with limitations still in place.

On Dec. 27 the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council issued its final order, to be forwarded to Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, which reaffirmed its initial ruling and denied follow-up petitions from both opponents and proponents of the project.

In the original Oct. 7 EFSEC ruling on the project, Whistling Ridge was approved, but 15 turbines of the proposed 50 were required to be eliminated - primarily to mitigate visual impacts in sensitive scenic areas within the Gorge.

The EFSEC in its original ruling determined that the 15 turbines under denial were "prominently visible" and "impermissively intrusive."

Following the Oct. 7 ruling, five parties submitted petitions requesting reconsideration of the decision.

Opponents included: Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Save our Scenic Area and the Seattle Audubon Society. Opponents cited multiple objections beyond the visual intrusiveness of the project, including effects on endangered species and wildlife, obtrusive noise and intrusions on Native American heritage sites.

Petitions in support of the full 50-turbine project came from Whistling Ridge Energy LLC and the Skamania and Klickitat County Public Economic Development Authorities. Proponents focused primarily on economic development and viability.

In its submitted petition, the developer, Whistling Ridge LLC, stated that elimination of the 15 denied turbines "kills the project." It is unclear from either this petition language whether Whistling Ridge will continue with the project if the governor agrees with the turbine number reduction.

The Dec. 27 EFSEC order concluded: "The Council has considered all petitions for reconsideration ... No basis has been provided to justify any changes in the Council's findings, conclusion or recommendations. Hence, the Council denies all motions for reconsideration."

With 426-foot towers slated to be sited atop several ridgelines, some remaining EFSEC-approved wind turbines will be visible throughout the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Act territory, a significant point of controversy for the proposed facility.

"The council listed 15 of the 50 turbines as off-limits," said Nathan Baker, staff attorney for Friends of the Gorge, opponent of the project. "This doesn't eliminate the visual impact of the turbines for Hood River and elsewhere; it just reduces tower numbers on the front lines of site,"

The 15 towers denied by the EFSEC lie in most view-sensitive areas affecting Underwood, White Salmon and Hood River. The specific restricted towers were those listed as A1 to A7 and C1 to C8 on the project proposal map.

In a study funded in part by SDS Lumber and referenced in the council's deliberations, the impact on the view-shed - deemed "low-to-moderate" - includes project visibility from points in White Salmon, Viento State Park, the Historic Columbia River Highway, I-84 in both directions and Hood River.

Opponents of the project, including the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, argued that the study under-represents those impacts and others, including wildlife harm and noise.

The facility, if constructed, will produce 75 megawatts of electricity and is located about 7 miles west of White Salmon on privately held lands currently in commercial timber production. The estimated cost of construction will be approximately $150 million.

A Whistling Ridge Energy Company website lists the creation of eight to nine permanent jobs over a 20-year period of farm operations, along with total property tax revenues for the county of $731,000, as a result of the project.

"The council has indicated SDS may still produce up to 75 megawatts on the project, but with fewer turbines," said Baker. This could mean the remaining 35 turbines would have upsized blades and girth, while still keeping under the 426-foot height limit.

The Whistling Ridge petition implied that resizing turbines would not offset the loss of energy generation resulting from the 15 denied turbines.

"The council's summary did not include any recommended changes based on wildlife impacts," said Baker, who noted that the proposed site of nine remaining approved turbines would lie within two designated spotted owl habitat circles near Moss Creek and Mill Creek.

The EFSEC's final order and recommendation have now been forwarded to the governor, who alone will decide whether to approve, deny or send the EFSEC's recommendation back to the council for further consideration. Gregoire will have 60 days to complete her decision process.

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