By SVERRE BAKKE
The fate of a proposed private wind farm on southeastern Skamania County forest land is now in the hands of Gov. Christine Gregoire.
Washington's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) last week upheld its landmark decision to recommend approval of the Whistling Ridge Energy Project's Site Certification Agreement for a 75-megawatt facility, with no more than 35 turbines, on commercial forest land. The $150 million wind energy project would be laid out over 1,152 acres of timberland owned by SDS Lumber Co. and Broughton Lumber Co., in an area west and northwest of Underwood.
"All eyes are on the Governor now," said Nathan Baker, staff attorney for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Inc., which petitioned the Site Evaluation Council to deny the Whistling Ridge application upon reconsideration. "We're hopeful that the Governor will send the project back to EFSEC to address some of the issues raised by the parties in the petitions for reconsideration. That was the choice the Governor made when she received the application for the Kittitas Valley project, which was the last controversial wind project to reach her desk."
Gov. Gregoire's review of the recommendation package -- which could take up to 60 days -- will begin when her office receives it from the Site Evaluation Council. Her options are to approve the application, deny it, or remand it to the council with instructions for reconsideration.
"The recommendation package is being put together now. It should be submitted within the next couple of weeks or sooner," said council spokesman Stephen Posner. "EFSEC will wait to hear from the Governor's office before taking any further action."
Jason Spadaro, president of SDS and Whistling Ridge Energy Partners, said he was disappointed the council did not reconsider issues the applicant raised in its pretition. Nonetheless, he said, the council's latest ruling affirmed what project proponents have been saying all along: there's a need for their project and their site is appropriate for development of a wind energy facility. Whistling Ridge is Skamania County's first wind energy project and enjoys the backing of the County Commissioners because of its potential economic benefits.
"There are a number of overwhelming reasons why the Governor should approve our application," Spadaro said. "Our project has met the letter of the law. It survived a lengthy, exhaustive review process and withstood challenge in the reconsideration phase. Now it's up to the Governor, who we trust will give our application a fair and thorough review before reaching her judgment."
In approving a new order affirming the recommendation it announced on Oct. 6 in Stevenson, the seven-member Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council -- during a Dec. 27 special meeting in Olympia -- also rejected the five petitions for reconsideration it received, sometimes in caustic language, as well as the seven responses to those petitions and an objection to the participation of Skamania County's representative in full council deliberations on the Whistling Ridge application. In addition, the council denied a motion by Whistling Ridge opponents Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Save Our Scenic Area to reopen the project's Final Environmental Impact Statement for oral arguments to present "new information" regarding impacts to the Northern Spotted Owl.
"Essentially, the council determined the petitions did not provide justification to change the council's findings, conclusions or recommendations," Posner noted.
Baker said Friends of the Gorge "were surprised that the council didn't take this opportunity to at least fix some of the inconsistencies and omissions in its orders and draft permit, including minor issues raised not only by Friends, but also by the applicant."
The Dec. 27 special meeting marked the end of the Site Evaluation Council's adjudication of the application that Whistling Ridge Energy Partners, LLC submitted to the state body in February 2009 as a 50-turbine project. The applicant later offered to modify the number downward to 38 turbines. The Site Evaluation Council, for its part, limited the project to no more than 35 turbines to address a number of issues raised during its nearly three-year-long study of the project.
The council eliminated 15 proposed turbines -- in the three most-visible turbine strings vis a vis key Columbia River Gorge viewing areas -- due to scenic and noise impacts it found could not be mitigated but declared the rest of the plan conformed to county land use ordinances and to state and federal guidelines for protecting wildlife and cultural resources.