New Hampshire's Site Evaluation Committee is deliberating on Noble Environmental's proposal to erect a 99-megawatt wind energy facility in northern Coos County.
The project has caught the attention of several high profile environmental groups in the State including New Hampshire Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, and Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) - all of whom issued strong letters, and in the case of AMC, testimony, detailing the significant impacts to sensitive wildlife habitat should the project proceed. Biologists at New Hampshire Fish and Game (NHF&G) submitted equally strong testimony arguing the project will produce an unreasonable adverse effect on the natural environment.
The facts proffered by the above mentioned groups are consistent.
The project located on managed timber land spans four ridgelines. The bulk of the thirty-three turbines are slated for rare, pristine old-growth forest that, according to NH's Wildlife Action plan accounts for only about four-percent of the state's land area but whose habitat type supports sixty-six vertebrate species including several threatened species. In particular, this high-elevation spruce-fir forest is home to the Bicknell's thrush, American martin, and the three-toed woodpecker, all known to be resident at the project site. Tracks of the Canada lynx, now believed to be pioneering back to the State have been observed onsite.
The project proposes to build 33 miles of roads involving 50-foot ledge cuts and surface widths ranging from 24 to 150 feet wide. Noble's engineer confirmed under oath that this photo taken at the Kibby Mountain wind facility in Maine accurately represents what can be expected in New Hampshire.
The project also seeks to fill over thirteen (13) acres of wetlands including the destruction of eight vernal pools.
The US Army Corps of Engineers has informed Noble that the alternatives analysis conducted on the project is inadequate and more needs to be done to prove that the proposed site location and plan layout is the least impacting. Technical letters prepared by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and EPA concur with the Army Corps finding.
Still, Noble Environmental has resisted all requests to relocate or remove turbines that might reduce the environmental damage complaining that any changes to the plan will harm the project's economic viability. No concrete evidence has been supplied by Noble to substantiate this point.
But it would appear that by Noble holding firm at least two parties have caved to its will - AMC and NHF&G. In the final days leading up to the State hearings, AMC, NHF&G, and Noble hastily slapped together an agreement termed the High Elevation Mitigation Agreement. The key conditions of the agreement are simple:
1) Land surrounding one of the four turbine strings sited on one of the four peaks (Kelsey Mountain) will be deeded to the State of New Hampshire as conservation land.
2) Two offsite parcels totaling 260 acres will be deeded to the State.
3) Funds totaling $950,000 will be paid to NHF&G of which $200,000 will be used to conduct post-construction studies on the effects of wind facilities on high-elevation species and the remaining $750,000 will go towards purchasing additional conservation lands.
AMC's and NHF&G's firm opposition to certain turbine strings being constructed was not firm at all. When faced with a choice between managed commercial timbering in the area - a regulated industry active in the state for decades (and now green-certified) - and the project, the project was deemed the lesser evil.
This position taken by AMC and NHF&G is even more incredible after considering AMC's David Publicover's own statements that timbering at high elevations in New England typically produces low commercial value and the steep slopes significantly impede harvest due to cost. This aerial photo of the Kelsey ridgeline showing an area near-black with forest appears to validate this point.
The haste in which the agreement was negotiated and signed did not go unnoticed during the hearings. Windaction.org, a party to the proceedings before the State, had the opportunity to cross-examined AMC and NHF&G on the agreement, a summary of what was revealed detailed below:
Did AMC or NHF&G perform a trade-off analysis that looked at total acreage impacted by the project including forest interior habitat lost?
Answer - "No." NHF&G stated in testimony that 3747 acres of high-elevation habitat would be affected.
Did AMC or NHF&G consider how far into the forest the direct edge effects of building the road, turbine pads, and associated transmission would be felt?
Answer - "No." AMC's Dave Publicover added under oath that "We knew those edge effects were there. We knew approximately what they were. ...We weren't basing our mitigation on any specific, you know, mitigation acreage ratio."
Did AMC or NHF&G visit the mitigation land to determine the quality of the habitat and whether it was comparable to the habitat that would be lost?
Answer - "No." In fact, some of the mitigation land was recently timbered, confirmed in aerial photos obtained by Windaction.org.
Did AMC or NHF&G prepare a scope of work for any post-construction studies and did either validate whether the $200,000 was sufficient to cover costs including administrative costs?
Answer - "No."
Did either AMC or NHF&G consider how much land could be purchased for the $750,000 and the availability of comparable habitat elsewhere in the State that was not already protected?
Answer - "No." Under oath, NHF&G stated it was difficult to tell what landowners will demand for land but the Department knows of several properties that had recently been cut.
It remains to be seen whether the State of New Hampshire will endorse the agreement signed by NHF&G, AMC, and Noble Environmental. Windaction.org would hope the Committee will hold a higher standard for the State than what NHF&G and AMC have demonstrated. The lesson learned in this case is that we cannot assume those negotiating mitigation settlement agreements have the knowledge, experience, or commitment to protect the natural resources at stake, even when that's their job.