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News / Clark County News

Whistling Ridge faces new legal challenge

Petition seeks to block BPA decision to allow wind farm on grid

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter
Published: September 18, 2015, 10:06pm

More than two years after the Washington State Supreme Court upheld its approval, a controversial wind farm in Skamania County finds itself the subject of yet another legal challenge.

A new petition filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals aims to block a recent decision by the Bonneville Power Administration allowing the Whistling Ridge Energy Project to connect to the regional power grid. The challenge argues that BPA didn’t adequately review the impacts of the wind farm before making its decision.

The action adds more uncertainty to a project that has lingered in limbo for years. The Whistling Ridge wind farm was first proposed in 2007. It’s still waiting to break ground.

The latest challenge was filed by Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Save Our Scenic Area — the same two environmental groups that filed an earlier, and ultimately unsuccessful, appeal to a previous decision. Opponents of the project continue to emphasize what they believe are adverse impacts to wildlife and views in the Columbia River Gorge.

“It’s all about location,” said Nathan Baker, staff attorney with Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “This is one of the worst locations in the state of Washington to put a wind project.”

The Whistling Ridge wind farm would put 35 turbines on private forestland in Skamania County, just outside the boundary of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Most of the project’s 1,152-acre area would continue to be used for commercial forestry, as it has for decades, according to Whistling Ridge. The actual footprint of the wind farm is much smaller, according to the company.

Whistling Ridge Energy LLC is a subsidiary of SDS Lumber. Company president Jason Spadaro said the $50 million project would be a boon for a financially ailing county, and provide renewable energy for the region. Renewable energy requirements in Washington, Oregon and elsewhere ware set to rise in the coming years, he said.

“There’s just more demand for cleaner power,” Spadaro said.

The project’s small size means it would produce relatively little power, and not enough benefit to justify its impact, Baker said. Spadaro has pointed out the somewhat unusual situation of having an environmental group fight a proposed wind farm that would promote renewable energy.

BPA announced its authorization of the Whistling Ridge project with a record of decision in June. The petition challenging that action was filed this month.

“We’ve received the petition filed in the Ninth Circuit by Friends of the Columbia Gorge,” the agency said in a statement. “Because this matter involves active litigation, we have no comment at this time.”

Whistling Ridge was separately approved by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2012, following an earlier recommendation by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The decision was appealed, and ultimately affirmed by the state Supreme Court in 2013.

At the time, Spadaro said the energy market and economic conditions wouldn’t allow the project to move forward. That still appears to be the case today, Spadaro said Friday. But that may change in the future, he added.

“Economics are always changing,” Spadaro said. “The value of energy, and particularly the value of renewable energy, is always changing.”

Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter