A proposal to build the first wind farm in Western Washington may stall, and may even be doomed, because of concern turbine blades would kill members of an endangered bird species, a state lawmaker said Wednesday.
“I’m just not feeling real confident that this is going to grab hold and move forward very fast,” said Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview. “There are key players who aren’t very supportive, and I think it’s going to hold this up. Is it going to kill it? I don’t know.”
Public-power developer Energy Northwest and four utility districts in Pacific, Grays Harbor, Clallam and Mason counties propose installing as many as 32 wind turbines on Radar Ridge in Pacific County. The wind farm would generate enough electricity for 18,000 homes and help the utilities meet a voter-approved mandate to invest in renewable energy. The towers, however, would be in the flight path of the federally protected marbled murrelet.
Consultants hired by Energy Northwest concluded recently that in a worst-case scenario a marbled murrelet would collide with a rotor about once every 18 months. Deaths could be further reduced by shutting down the towers during the breeding season, according to the report, which prompted the utilities to declare that their project would cause minor or insignificant harm to the species.
Another study commissioned by the state Department of Natural Resources made no attempt to pinpoint how many birds would be killed, but warned that some 87 marbled murrelets a year would fly through the wind farm and that the likelihood for deaths was high.
Spokesmen for the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act, said Wednesday their agencies will hire outside experts to review Energy Northwest’s study.
In the meantime, the utilities will host a series of public meetings this month on the project. The utilities say they want to collect comments and get ready to apply for a federal permit that would allow them to operate a wind farm that might occasionally kill a marbled murrelet.
The utilities also will need permission from the DNR, which owns Radar Ridge and would collect potentially lucrative lease payments from the utilities.
Takko and the area’s other two state legislators back the wind farm, but Takko said federal and state regulators are cool to the project and that the PUDs may have to “pull the plug” rather than continuing to spend money on what could be a dead-end. “I don’t think it’s time quite yet, but we’re getting close,” he said.
Grays Harbor PUD, the largest utility involved in the project, has no plans to pull out, utility spokeswoman Liz Anderson said. “We’re proceeding forward and hope to complete the project,” she said.
Although state and federal agencies haven’t rejected the project, they’ve warned the utilities that pursuing the wind farm won’t be quick, easy or cheap.
“We’ve never said Radar Ridge can’t be permitted. What we’ve said is, it’s going to be a real challenge,” Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Doug Zimmer said.
State Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, said the PUDs should press ahead. “I think it’s worth it until they get some ‘hell, no,’ at some point,” he said.
Hatfield said the agencies would “look ridiculous” to the public if they stopped the project.
“I’m still pretty confident they’ll be able to move forward,” Hatfield said. “I have to be confident because I think commonsense will win out.”
U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, has met with utility and government officials about the proposal, but he has neither endorsed nor opposed the project.
Baird said he would like to see the wind farm built, but not if it turns out to be “the world’s largest marbled murrelet blender.”
“From a wind-energy standpoint, the site has a lot of appeal,” Baird said Wednesday. “The challenge is that there is really a substantial difference in opinions about the potential risk to marbled murrelets.”
Hatfield criticized the DNR for deciding recently not to consider leasing state land for a wind farm in Skamania County because the project might harm spotted owls. The senator said the decision suggested the department will resist a wind farm on Radar Ridge. “I’m very disappointed with the new lands commissioner (Peter Goldmark) so far,” Hatfield said.
Goldmark “is committed to renewable energy, but the challenge is the Endangered Species Act,” DNR spokesman Aaron Toso said. “We need to be pragmatic about it, and it comes down to making sure we do no harm.”
The public meetings hosted by the utilities on the project will be Nov. 10 at Grays Harbor PUD in Hoquiam, Nov. 17 at Naselle High School, and Nov. 18 at Raymond High School. All of the meetings will be from 6 to 9 p.m.