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Council approves Whistling Ridge wind farm with limits

October 8, 2011

The proposed Whistling Ridge wind power project slated to be sited in Skamania County on land owned by SDS Lumber and Broughton Lumber, and in view of Hood River, is one step further down the road on the path to construction, albeit with a potential reduction in turbines.

At the Oct. 6 Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council meeting held in Stevenson, a set of recommendations were finalized on the application for a $150 million 50-turbine wind farm near the city of White Salmon.

The council decision, including a recommendation to approve the project with some limitations and conditions, was scheduled to be officially released on the agency's website late Friday, Oct. 7, but attendees were provided a summary at the Oct. 6 meeting.

According to Nathan Baker, staff attorney for the Friends of the Gorge and meeting attendee, the council recommendations have placed a limit of 35 turbines on the project - primarily to mitigate "scenic" impacts.

With 426-foot towers slated to be sited atop several ridgelines, the 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 Baker. Those 15 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.

"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," said Baker.

"Secondary benefits," according to Baker, "are a reduction in view impacts and noise for Underwood residents since one set of the proposed turbines looming over their town will now be eliminated."

In an environmental impact 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 noted 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, argue that the study under-represents those impacts and others, including wildlife harm and consequences of offensive 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 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.

A Whistling Ridge Energy Company website lists the creation of eight to nine permanent jobs over a 20-year period of farm operations at 75 megawatts, along with total property tax revenues for the county of $731,000, as a result of the project.

This week a five-party request, led by the Audubon Society of Seattle, was sent in letter format to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bonneville Power Administration, urging a re-evaluation of the project's impact to endangered northern spotted owls.

In May of 2010, a spotted owl was confirmed in the area on Department of Natural Resources land adjacent to the site and falls under protections of the "Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Area" official designation.

"The confirmed owl information was never updated in the Final Environmental Impact Study's main text," said Shawn Cantrell, executive director of the Seattle Audubon Society. "It lies hidden in an appendix."

Bonneville Power Administration, who must ultimately grant access to power transmission lines on the project in order for it to proceed, is a federal agency obligated to act in accordance to the Federal Endangered Species Act regulations.

"The spotted owl concern is the most likely reason BPA would deny access to the project," said Baker.

"Also, two months ago, the USFWS updated their Spotted Owl Recovery Plan with different guidance on how to manage private lands in owl habitat. That also needs to be included in the re-evaluation," said Cantrell.

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

The project Final Environmental Impact Study, Final Adjudicative Order, Final Draft Site Certification Agreement and Final Draft Recommendation Order are the components of the review process which will be included in the council's ultimate recommendation to Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.

Thursday's EFSEC recommendations and decision, once posted, will initiate a 20-day review period in which anyone, including SDS Lumber, may petition for reconsideration of the decision or recommendations.

After the reconsideration period, the public will have an additional 14 days to respond to those petitions.

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