Wind farm effort’s end blamed on agency

Fish and Wildlife says investors didn’t understand process

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Investors in a proposed wind farm in coastal Pacific County say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is largely to blame for their decision last week to terminate the $4 million project after four years of planning and studies.

But an agency official says the five public utilities backing the proposed 82-megawatt Radar Ridge project failed to understand the environmental review process the service was required to follow in considering a project that could affect the threatened marbled murrelet, a rare seabird that nests in old-growth forests near the ocean.

Jack Baker, vice president of Energy Northwest, the Tri-Cities-based energy consortium that led the effort to get the wind farm permitted, said in a statement, “A tremendous amount of work has been poured into this project by the participants … to make this a viable, beneficial energy resource for our members.”

“We are disappointed development could not continue, but the permitting framework U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imposed on us … was untenable,” Baker said. Among other things, he said, the agency proposed an alternative for consideration in the project’s environmental impact statement that would have required shutting down the wind turbines during daylight hours for 6[ ] months of the year, during the murrelet’s nesting season.

That alternative also would have granted the project only a five-year permit, making it difficult to obtain financing, said Doug Miller of Pacific County Public Utility District No. 2, one of four coastal PUDs that invested in Radar Ridge. Miller said the project would have given a boost to the county’s economy with 200 jobs during construction and provided a green energy option for the utility’s customers.

Baker conceded that the service had warned up front that obtaining a federal permit for the project “would not be easy, quick or cheap” because of the presence of nesting murrelets in the area.

“They were right,” he said. “However, we expected the conditions for the permit to be reasonable and based on the science. They were not.”

On the contrary, said Ken Berg, project leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He said his agency had worked closely with the investors since 2008, but they failed to understand the challenge of permitting a wind farm in close proximity to a federally listed threatened species.

“I’m disappointed that they decided to cancel the project because we had worked very long and hard with them to make it a success,” Berg said Thursday. “Unfortunately, they picked the most challenging site in Southwest Washington for the first commercial wind energy project.”

Berg said Energy Northwest initially approached the service in the fall of 2008 and said it needed a permit in six months. He suggested the utility find another site.

Berg said Energy Northwest did not understand under the National Environmental Policy Act, the service was required to identify a range of options for a project, send them out for public comment, and then choose one option or a blend of options as the basis for making a formal decision to issue a permit.

“We have not decided what the permit would look like if we issued one,” he said. “What they call permit conditions” — such as identifying when the turbines would be allowed to operate — “are just concepts that we shared with them. We were in the process of developing the environmental impact statement when they stopped funding it” in August.

“They wanted us to guarantee that the final EIS would not include any more conditions,” he said. “Due to the economics of the wind market, they made it clear that unless we rubber-stamped their application, they couldn’t go forward with the project.”

Berg said he had spent more time on the Radar Ridge project than on any other in the past three years.

“It’s important to do wind energy right,” he said. “We knew this was a precedent-setting project for everyone.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.