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It Depends on Your View

Mark Ohrenschall
Con.Web, January 30, 2004

Visual Effects Identified as Most Notable Impact
of Proposed Central Washington Wind Farm

The eyes have it.

A draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project in central Washington identifies visual effects as the most notable dilemma posed by the prospective wind farm of at least 181.5 megawatts capacity.

"For many viewers," the draft EIS reads, "the presence of the wind turbines represents a significant unavoidable adverse impact because it significantly alters the appearance of the rural landscape over a large area of the Kittitas Valley. Flashing of lights on the tops of turbines would similarly be considered a significant unavoidable adverse impact" from 82 to 150 commercial-scale wind turbines proposed for ridgetops northwest of Ellensburg.

The document adds: "How adverse these impacts become depends on the viewer's location and sensitivity and the impact on view quality."

From a regulatory perspective, "In Washington state, there is no standard or criteria for visual impacts from wind facilities," said Irina Makarow, siting manager for the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. Her agency produced the draft EIS in its review of the Kittitas Valley proposal, for which it will make a recommended decision to the governor.

The draft EIS came out Dec. 12 and outlined a broad range of potential wind farm issues, including effects on birds, other wildlife, natural resources, human health and safety, land uses, transportation, and the local economy and community. Some issues are deemed insignificant by the draft EIS. Some others, such as bird deaths and fire risks, are noted but considered manageable. Cultural resources, specifically Yakama Indian Nation resources and a historic canal tunnel, could be indirectly affected for the worse, but those impacts could be avoided or mitigated.

"The EIS in large measure basically confirmed what we said over a year ago when we filed our application ... This project is not going to have any significant negative impacts on the environment locally and will have significant benefits regionally in terms of adding significant renewable generation," said project manager Chris Taylor of developer Zilkha Renewable Energy.

He acknowledged views as a "possible exception" to the lack of major concerns, but said Zilkha would design features to minimize visual impacts.

Meanwhile, an Ellensburg attorney opposed to the project criticized the draft EIS as "inadequate in so many ways." Steve Lathrop told Con.WEB the document is "nothing more than a regurgitation" of Zilkha's EFSEC application for site certification, instead of an independent evaluation.

Information and analysis in the draft EIS are "based primarily on information provided" by Zilkha, the document stated.

"We did the studies; these are the conclusions of [EFSEC] experts, who are not reporting to us," said Taylor, adding, "I never read this [draft EIS] until everybody else did."

Makarow said the proposed wind farm is subject to draft EIS public comments and upcoming adjudicative hearings. "We're very far from issuing a final EIS," she said.

Kittitas Valley Wind
The Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project was publicly announced in spring 2002, and has generated substantial local interest and controversy (see Con.WEB, March 27, 2003, for a column exploring different perspectives on the would-be wind farm).

A Jan. 13 Ellensburg meeting on the draft EIS illustrated the divisions over the project. Speakers were roughly split between supporters and opponents, according to Makarow.

"For the pro side, the main concern is support of renewable energy, and this is one of the means to get there," she reported. Another spoken point in favor was economic gain, to the county overall and to landowners leasing their property for turbines, she said.

Wind farm opponents generally said, "This really wasn't a great location for a wind power project," Makarow reported. Among specific concerns, "Obviously the most significant is the visual impact for residents in that area," she said. Also raised were health and safety concerns, including blade/tower catastrophes and shadow flicker, as well as prospective impacts on birds and other wildlife, she said.

Draft EIS
A 58-page summary of the draft EIS outlines the proposed wind farm and its prospective impacts, along with mitigation measures.

Kittitas Valley would have a capacity somewhere between 181.5 MW and 246 MW, intended to "meet a portion of the projected growing regional demands for electricity produced from non-renewable and renewable resources," the draft EIS said.

The proposed wind farm would span about 7,000 acres along U.S. Highway 97 between Ellensburg and Cle Elum, although the permanent infrastructure would occupy an estimated 93 to 118 acres. In addition to turbines (the exact number and sizes are yet undetermined), the project would include 19 miles of new roads, 23 miles of underground electric lines, 2 miles of overhead lines, two substations, a 5,000-square-foot operations and maintenance facility, and up to nine meteorological towers.

Most of the proposed land area is private, although some is state-owned. Zilkha has agreements to use the properties, the draft EIS said.

Visual Impacts
The most notable irremediable effect of the Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project would be the sight of wind turbines, the draft EIS concludes.

From U.S. Highway 97 in the vicinity and from nearby residences, the wind farm "would be highly visible and would have a moderate to high visual impact," the document reads. "From more distant locations, the visual effects would be relatively minor and would have little or no impact on the quality of views."

The draft EIS lists Zilkha's proposed mitigations, such as gray paint on uniformly designed turbines and predominantly underground electrical collection systems. EFSEC suggests tree-planting to lessen impacts and Zilkha-purchased conservation easements "on land in important foreground views" to avoid further development. But neither the agency nor Zilkha mention any proposed changes to the wind farm's basic configuration.

Taylor said Zilkha has dropped some earlier planned turbines that would have been "quite visible" from points on Interstate 90, "for a variety of reasons, including visual effects." Zilkha also has created visual simulations of the proposed project, and made them widely and publicly available, he said.

Wind turbines are large and can't be hidden, Taylor acknowledged, but he said his company would incorporate known design methods of lessening visual impacts.

"Our position is and the reality is that visual and aesthetic impacts are inherently subjective," he said, and EFSEC should look at "the sum total of all impacts, positive and negative, across all areas of the environment," in making a decision on Kittitas Valley.

Another "significant unavoidable adverse impact" listed, though indirect, is the potential effect on tribal cultural resources, according to the draft EIS. Two prehistoric archaelogical sites are known at the site. The document notes "ongoing" consultation with the Yakama Indian Nation and suggests "appropriate mitigation measures should be devised" for any affected resources before construction begins.

On the issue of birds, the draft EIS predicts a "low" impact from the wind farm, not affecting overall population levels. However, raptor deaths would probably be "slightly higher compared to other wind projects with similar turbine types," the document said. Passerines are the most common bird seen in the vicinity and would likely be the most commonly killed by the wind farm. The draft EIS predicts "some bat fatalities" as well.

The wind farm would disturb up to 150 acres of lithosol habitat, which the document described as "unique and sensitive and difficult to restore." Invasive plant species also could colonize the area. Zilkha plans numerous project design features to limit impacts to flora and fauna, from the use of tubular towers to avoiding construction in sensitive areas to minimizing new road construction. A 550-acre replacement habitat parcel also is listed as a proposed mitigation measure by Zilkha.

The draft EIS also outlines several health/safety issues. Summer grass fires during project construction are an acknowledged risk, although Zilkha proposes an extensive mitigation plan to address potential fires and explosions. Tower collapse and blade parts detaching from turbines are listed as possibilities, though they are remote and could be mitigated by minimum setback requirements and compliance with engineering and manufacturing standards, the draft EIS said. Setbacks also would help address the potential of ice falling off blades, as would turbine shutdowns during icing conditions.

Rotating blades would cause flickering shadows in some nearby homes at certain times of low-angle sun, but this could be addressed by tree-planting and/or shade installations. Turbine noise "could ... exceed regulatory thresholds" at nearby structures and property lines. If acoustical analysis of the final planned turbines and layout shows a lack of compliance, EFSEC recommends moving or removing offending turbines.

Project construction would directly create 253 new temporary jobs and generate more than $5.7 million in total income (direct, indirect and induced) in the county, the draft EIS said. Project operations would result in almost $2 million annually in added income in the county, $1.3 million in additional property tax revenues and 12 to 14 full-time positions for a 181.5-MW-capacity wind farm.

Lathrop, an Ellensburg attorney and intervenor in the EFSEC Kittitas Valley process, believes the draft EIS largely echoes Zilkha's application--not an independent, objective evaluation to identify potential impacts and mitigations, to help inform decision-makers.

"On many key points, they simply said, to the effect, 'Well, we don't know what the impacts are going to be, but whatever they are the applicant will fix them after the fact.' Which of course is totally useless," he said.

EFSEC's conclusion about visual impacts is "probably one of the few accurate statements or analyses they've got in the whole document," he said, but it's still too general to provide guidance for EFSEC.

Cumulative impacts from other proposed Kittitas County wind projects should be better analyzed in the draft EIS, Lathrop said. So should effects on specific geographic sub areas from the Kittitas Valley project, which he called the worst possible wind farm site in the county. "It may be attractive from a wind standpoint, but that's a business decision; that's not an environmental decision or a cultural decision or what's the impact on the community."

Taylor disputed Lathrop's opinion on the EIS' objectivity, saying the document's findings came from independent experts.

"At the end of the day, it comes down to some people don't like to look at wind turbines. That's the only real argument against the turbines," Taylor said. He cited environmental and economic development benefits of Kittitas Valley, and reiterated the proposed site as one of Washington's best for a wind farm, with strong wind resources and close access to transmission and loads.

Public comments on the draft EIS closed Jan. 20, and will be reviewed and responded to by EFSEC. Adjudicative hearings on the proposed wind farm are planned sometime later this year, according to Makarow. "They would add more meat to the analysis ... presented in the draft EIS," she said. A final EIS will follow. EFSEC has no official timetable yet for its recommended decision to the governor, she said.

Related Sites:
Draft environmental impact statement on Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project

by Mark Ohrenschall
It Depends on Your View
Con.Web - January 30, 2004

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