Protecting the Laurel Fork stream is a top priority, citizens tell the state, and wind turbines could cause serious problems unless agencies intervene
MONTEREY - Highland New Wind Development hoped to have its 39-megawatt wind energy plant under construction by now, but citizens and state agency officials continue to demand proper plans before allowing Virginia's first wind utility to move forward.
Nearby landowners, scientists, and county residents are particularly concerned now about HNWD's Erosion and Sediment Control plan, and its Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan, both of which still do not comply with regulations and recommendations by state inspectors. Last fall, state Department of Conservation and Recreation inspector Mark Chambers made a lengthy list of required changes to the project's development and ground construction - all measures designed to prevent construction from causing harm to the Laurel Fork watershed on Allegheny Mountain, and keep sediment from disturbing the ecologically sensitive stream.
Prompted by a Dec. 21, 2009 letter to the Department of Conservation and Recreation from Highlanders for Responsible Development, DCR hosted a meeting April 6 that brought several interested parties to the table to discuss the issue.
Attending were county administrator Roberta Lambert and building official Jim Whitelaw; Lucile Miller, Pamela and Arthur Dobbs, Rick Webb, and Dan Foster, representing citizens; Gary Berti of Trout Unlimited; Leon Szeptycki of the University of Virginia law clinic; Sen. Mark Obenshain on behalf of HNWD; and DCR officials Lee Hill, Ryan Brown, Eric Capps, Jim Echols and Mark Chambers. Chambers performs most of the inspections of the HNWD project site.
Lambert told county supervisors April 20 that DCR "has been reviewing a newly submitted erosion and sediment control plan, which will be coming to the county in the near future. They are currently waiting for Mr. Chambers to complete his review of this. That will be coming to the county for review in probably three to four weeks for approval." DCR representatives were "extremely complimentary of the (HNWD) project, particularly of the contractor that they are using and the stabilization procedure that he is using as he goes along, rather than waiting until the project is completed to go back and stabilize," she told her board. "There were some questions to revisions to E&S plans, which DCR explained that that is not unusual at all. They say on larger projects they may see 7-8-9 revisions to E&S plans as the process goes along."
HRD, a loose-knit group of county residents and landowners, had asked DCR to take another look at HNWD's plans, and whether they complied with the Virginia general permit for discharges of storm water for construction. The group has generally opposed putting 400-foot towers on Allegheny because of the potential for damage to Laurel Fork, a protected trout stream with a watershed encompassing the site. The group consulted the Environmental Law and Conservation Clinic at U.Va.
HRD told the DCR it should review HNWD's Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan with an eye toward the effects of pollutants on high-quality portions of Laurel Fork. The group said the SWPPP has to comply with anti-degradation provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, and asked that DCR's general permit authorization be withdrawn until plans comply with both Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and Virginia's anti-degradation program.
DCR declined to withdraw approval. Assistant division director with storm water management protection programs Lee Hill said, "DCR staff believes that the general permit coverage process for HNWD was properly followed in accordance with VSMP regulations, and that HNWD properly obtained coverage for the site." In Hill's March 8 reply to HRD, he said DCR staff doesn't believe that "any conditions at the site would justify a modification or revocation of the
current permit coverage." DCR officials have conducted inspections, and reviewed the SWPPP.
"As a result of the inspection," he said, "DCR staff worked with the HNWD project management staff to revise the site's erosion and sediment control plan and improve plan implementation. DCR staff will continue to inspect the site and address any necessary corrective measures as needed."
The reaction from those attending the meeting was mixed. Lambert felt DCR was satisfied with how HNWD's plans were being developed, but others had little confidence the utility would be adequately monitored.
"The good news," said Miller, who owns property below the site, "is that DCR seems committed to making sure that HNWD at least has a plan that meets minimum state standards. Unusual weather events combined with the considerable land disturbing activities that are planned for the site could still do damage to the integrity of Laurel Fork as a naturally reproducing brook trout stream. A compliant plan does not protect from severe weather events ... The discouraging part is that as long as the plans are being adhered to, there may be little DCR can do if damage to the stream occurs as a result of the construction. It is important for the public to know that citizen involvement is necessary to minimize damage to water quality and wildlife at industrial wind sites."
Pam Dodds, a hydrologist consulting with HRD, believes DCR may not be able to effectively monitor impacts to Laurel Fork. Dodds says one of the problems with HNWD's plans is that they do not delineate sub-watersheds - places where storm water drainage would be directed. "Instead, only the areas that drain to a specific drainage point - typically, a culvert - are considered," she said. This means the calculations might not be correct and erosion and sediment control structures could be too small to handle the water. "Also, if more than one culvert directs storm water into a subwatershed, erosion of the receiving area and receiving stream can occur ... DCR should require assessment of the sub-watersheds into which the storm water discharge will be directed. Otherwise, there is no method for evaluating the impacts to receiving streams and no method for assessing antidegradation considerations."
Dodds says delineating the sub-watersheds is required under the Virginia Stormwater Management Act. "It is stated that the permit holder must ‘submit valid and verifiable data and information that are representative of ambient conditions and indicate that the receiving water is attaining water quality standards.' There is no indication that any sampling of Laurel Fork has been conducted to provide the ambient water quality data," she said.
Dodds also learned HNWD plans to have an on-site quarry for construction material. "We believe a separate permit will be required for a quarry," she said - one from the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
Foster, who is a former member of Highland's Mountain Soil and Water Conservation District board of directors, believes DCR is spread too thinly to adequately inspect HNWD's plans. He said Echols expressed that frustration, telling him that he cannot tie up Chambers' time with this project.
Dodds agreed. "In the meeting, Jim Echols expressed that (Chambers) had already spent too much time inspecting this project," she said. "From Jim Echols' comments, it was understood that Mark Chambers would not be allowed to continue spending this much time on the HNWD project. Therefore, we do not feel confident that DCR will continue to adequately inspect and monitor the project."
Dodds said citizens should understand the environmental protection they expect from DCR "is not a reality" at the HNWD site.
Foster agrees. "This still not long-term storm water management," he said. "They are using the wrong E&S measures and applying them to an unknown project. There are points where they're close, and we can thank Mark Chambers and Kyle Moyers for that ... they did a good job. But the deal is, why are we still guessing? We still don't have a real project on paper. This is not the fourth revision; it's the seventh or eighth revision. (Chambers) is really working for the developer - the taxpayers are paying to protect Laurel Fork."
Foster believes Laurel Fork requires long-term protection, looking at run-off rates down the line for years in the future. "If you change the impermeable surfaces, you'll increase the peak during flooding. Normally, the water would sink into the ground over days." But to prevent flooding, and damage to the stream, "you have to measure for that," Foster said.
Foster was also concerned about DCR being influenced by Sen. Obenshain, whose firm represents HNWD. "Here we have all these people, and we still don't have an objective project ... If we are serious about clean energy, we should be using the best engineering available. Why confuse things with politics when it's science and engineering that resolves things?" DCR, he said, is allowing an uninformed public to believe protection is in place. "The Clean Water Act is nothing unless you know it, and most people don't know it," he said. "This is still all politics, but politics shouldn't have anything to do with it. Yet here this state senator shows up and his law firm gets away with this because of an ignorant population and a county that doesn't give a damn."
Foster said he heard Obenshain in the hallway that day while Dodds was looking over the E&S plan, telling a DCR attorney he didn't want Dodds looking at it. "The bottom line is, they don't want anyone to know the project doesn't have the right engineering ... and it's hard for DCR to do its job; it's hard for the SWPPP to be properly designed without those measurements ...
Chambers did do us a real favor. I'm going to thank him. I don't know where he's getting his courage." Still, Foster says, "You'd think (DCR) would be adamant about getting a good plan, peer-reviewed by a competent firm ... A state agency should not be doing HNWD's work ... You have to have a county that hires and requires competency and peer review. This project has never been fully developed."
DCR information officer Gary Waugh said the agency will not allow HNWD to proceed with construction until its plans are revised according to agency recommendations. "Concerning your questions about the E&S plan, the runoff calculations, the SWPPP and E&S compliance, construction will not be allowed to resume until all of these actions are completed, reviewed and
approved by the county and by DCR staff as appropriate. In talking with some of our staff at the meeting they felt they had made that clear," he said.
Webb is skeptical. "I don't believe that the DCR will actually require compliance with SWPPP and E&S requirements before allowing this project to go forward, but I hope they prove me wrong," he said. "The real issue is long-term protection of Laurel Fork. It's not something that can be assured if this project is allowed to proceed piecemeal with one plan revision after
another. No one can know the impact on downstream aquatic habitat until Highland New Wind does the required analysis and calculations for the whole project."