Wind project in Pacific County killed

Participating utilities cite objections over marbled murrelet

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Four public utility districts in Southwest Washington have pulled the plug on a proposal to build Washington’s first coastal wind farm in the heart of the state’s most valuable nesting habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet.

The Radar Ridge Wind Project was first proposed in 2007 by Energy Northwest, a Tri-Cities energy consortium, for state forest trust land near Willapa Bay in Pacific County.

The utility proposed erecting up to 45 wind turbines across 3,000 acres on a promontory once used as a radar installation. Four participating utilities from Grays Harbor, Pacific, Mason and Clallam counties provided most of the original financing for the proposed 80-megawatt project.

Radar Ridge was controversial from the beginning.

The murrelet was listed as a threatened species in 1992 because of loss of its old-growth habitat to logging. The robin-sized bird nests high on the mossy limbs of old conifers and flies up to 50 miles across the forested landscape to feed at sea.

The only significant patch of murrelet habitat remaining in Southwest Washington is a 13,748-acre swath of old forest on state trust land known as the Nemah block. That’s where Energy Northwest proposed to built the wind farm.

A 2008 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study found a total of 89 occupied murrelet sites on state forest land within 30 miles of the proposed project site. Federal biologists said the northwest end of the site would be situated within 1,800 feet of “the highest known marbled murrelet nesting use site in Washington.”

The study raised the specter of the tiny birds flying a gantlet of rotating wind turbines with blades reaching more than 400 feet into the air.

In a 2009 review, the agency said “murrelets may be highly vulnerable in localized areas from energy development and production” including “direct mortality from strikes, as well as loss of habitat and fragmentation and impacts to reproductive success through changes in prey base, marine habitat and disturbance.”

Despite those concerns, Energy Northwest proceeded to conduct its own murrelet studies in preparation for submitting an environmental impact statement.

Then, last year, Grays Harbor Public Utility District voted to not invest any additional funds in Radar Ridge, citing opposition from environmental groups and uncertainty over whether the project would receive the necessary permits.

Last week, all four participating utilities decided unanimously to terminate the project. Energy Northwest posted an update on its website this week noting the vote “to terminate immediately.”

Energy Northwest officials could not be reached for comment.

“This decision is a major victory in the ongoing work to restore critical habitat for murrelets,” said Shawn Cantrell, executive director of Seattle Audubon. “The key for any wind power project is appropriate siting, and the Radar Ridge project was proposed in absolutely the wrong location.”

Other conservation groups that worked to stop the project included the Columbia River Alliance for Nurturing the Environment and the Willapa Hills and Grays Harbor Audubon chapters.

“Terminating the proposed Radar Ridge project is a recognition of the huge problems associated with trying to build a major energy facility in critical habitat for an threatened species,” Cantrell said in a statement. “While Energy Northwest tried to find ways to lessen the project’s impacts on murrelets, in the end, none of the well-intentioned mitigation measures proposed could overcome the issues of siting the project in the wrong place.”