The long period of silence over the county's proposed "Energy Overlay Zone" (EOZ) is about to be broken.
According to Dana Peck, director of the Klickitat County Economic Development Department, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is almost ready to go to the public.
"The draft of the Final Environmental Impact Statement is on my desk, and is going through a final staff review," Peck said. "We're hoping to complete it on July 23."
The Energy Overlay Zone is an effort by the county to streamline the regulatory processes for siting new energy plants, including wind power generators and gas-fired facilities. County planners and consultants have been working to provide an overview of the entire county and designate areas that appear to be suitable for energy production.
The proposal has generated controversy, with some residents worried that the proposed ordinance could diminish the public's ability to comment on specific energy facilities. Others have expressed concern about the ramifications of allowing the overlay zoning to supersede existing zoning.
The EOZ review process has been under way for more than two years, and a draft EIS was released in August 2003.
"That's just how long it takes," Peck said. "It's highly responsive to the public comments we received on the draft EIS."
Peck said a public meeting regarding the EOZ would come soon after the document is finalized.
"There will be a Planning Commission hearing for a public review of the FEIS," Peck said.
The meeting has been tentatively scheduled for Sept. 20, at the County Courthouse in Goldendale.
If the Planning Commission signs off on the proposed EOZ ordinance, it would go to the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners for final approval or rejection.
"It goes first to a hearing before the Planning Commission to take testimony on the proposed ordinance, which is an addendum to the county's Comprehensive Plan," explained Klickitat County Commissioner Don Struck. "There will be another hearing before the commissioners after that."
Struck said there was no way to anticipate when the commissioners might vote on the EOZ, but he expected it would be before the end of the year.
Curt Dreyer, director of the Klickitat County Planning Department, said many issues identified in the draft EIS were still being reviewed, and he could not say for sure when the final report would be released.
"We've got most of them addressed and are down to the last few. It takes time to get through this," Dreyer said. "We'll be meeting with the team putting this together on July 23, and hoping we'll be finalizing the last version of the FEIS then."
Struck said he is not surprised the EOZ study is taking a long time to complete.
"The environmental review was a pretty intricate process," Struck said. "There was no huge reason to rush, so we were patient with the consultants getting it out. And we did get a lot of public comments, and we're obligated to take those comments and address them individually."
One of the issues the EOZ consultants are dealing with is the possible impact wind generating turbines could have on bird populations.
According to Dave Thies, president of the Columbia Gorge Audubon Society, protection of birds is one of the primary issues the FEIS is dealing with.
"This story pits wind power against a National Audubon Society IBA [Important Bird Area] in the Columbia River Gorge," explained Thies. "Columbia Gorge Audubon Society believes that some wind power proponents are willing to sacrifice their `green' image by developing in the Columbia Hills, and we are concerned that National Audubon Society may not have the guts to stop them."
Thies said the consultants preparing the FEIS need to be aware of the public relations aspects of their proposal.
"They cannot determine that it is acceptable to facilitate wind power in the Columbia Hills IBA without the approval, or at least the acceptance, of Audubon leadership," explained Thies. "It would be a public relations disaster for the wind power companies seeking to site here if the EIS came out proclaiming `no bird problem,' and then Audubon publicly objected to the inappropriate siting of wind power in this IBA."
A series of letters from Audubon chapter presidents have gone to county officials, requesting that Klickitat County remove the important bird area from the proposed EOZ.
"Audubon says there is an important bird area out there. We are trying to address that," Dreyer said. "The draft EIS did include all of the Columbia Hills within the Energy Overlay Zone. That's a problem."
Dreyer said he did not believe the Columbia Hills area has been taken out of the proposed closing version of the FEIS.
"You'll see what we've done when the final document comes out," Dreyer said.
Struck pointed out that the concerns raised by Audubon were one of the key issues being addressed.
"That definitely was a major component of the EIS, doing the avian studies and determining what areas the ordinance will affect," Struck explained. "The avian review was a huge project, and expensive."
Dawn Stover, a Snowden resident and one of the opponents of the proposed EOZ, said she had not been able to get any information from the county about why the study is taking so long.
"The lead official [Dreyer] should have a sense of the timetable for this, and be able to tell the public about the changes being made and when we can see it," Stover said. "There has been no word on the changes they're contemplating, but the draft EIS was fatally flawed, in my opinion. It needs a complete overhaul. The fact it's taking so long may be a good sign."
Stover said potential harmful impacts to birds was just one aspect of the EOZ proposal.
"There are other problems too, including fisheries, cultural resources, and air pollution problems," Stover said. "If they kept this strictly to wind power, it would be a lot easier to find common ground. Lumping wind power and natural gas plants together makes it really complicated."
When the FEIS is completed, it will be made available at area libraries. Hard copies and CDs of the FEIS will be available for sale from the county's Planning Department for a fee. It will also be on the Klickitat County Web site.