State panel to revisit Gorge wind farm proposal

It urged scaling back the project 2 months ago; governor will have final say

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Two months after it recommended scaling back the project, Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council on Tuesday will weigh in for a final time on a proposed wind farm near the Columbia River Gorge in Skamania County.

EFSEC members met last week for an update on the Whistling Ridge Energy Project. They’ll convene again at 10 a.m. Tuesday for a special meeting to consider numerous legal arguments and responses filed since October. The council is then scheduled to cast its final vote on the matter.

“The EFSEC process ends on the 27th,” said EFSEC manager Al Wright. “Then it’s up to the governor.”

Wright stressed that the council’s vote is only a recommendation. The project’s fate ultimately rests with Gov. Chris Gregoire, who will have 60 days to make her decision once EFSEC gives its final recommendation.

On Oct. 6, EFSEC called for a scaled-back version of the project that would reduce the number of wind turbines from 50 to 35 — largely to protect views in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The decision drew objections from both project developer Whistling Ridge Energy and opponents, though for very different reasons.

In a legal petition asking for reconsideration, Whistling Ridge argued that eliminating 15 turbines from the proposal effectively “kills the project.” The farm wouldn’t be economically viable in a scaled-back form, the petition argued. It also wouldn’t be feasible to simply squeeze larger turbines into the project area and reach the original intended capacity of 75 megawatts, the developer said. Whistling Ridge officials urged the council to reconsider the decision based on what they called a “subjective” reason.

A Skamania and Klickitat county economic development organization also sided with Whistling Ridge, citing the economic boost and tax revenue that could come from the project.

Impact on wildlife

Three advocacy groups — Save Our Scenic Area, Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, and the Seattle Audubon Society — took the opposite stance. They argued in petitions that the council’s decision didn’t go far enough, with some calling for a denial of the entire project. In addition to obstructed views, environmental advocates have pointed to the potential impact on wildlife habitat as a major reason to reconsider.

The project area is located just north of the Gorge scenic area boundary, near the city of Underwood. Developers filed the application in 2009.

Tuesday’s EFSEC meeting will begin at 10 a.m. in the state Utilities and Transportation Commission Building, 1300 S. Evergreen Park Drive in Olympia. Anyone can attend, but the council won’t accept public comments.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.