A Pennsylvania lawmaker angry over a Bethlehem Authority wind-power project wants to give residents power to approve or deny the proposal.
The authority, which manages more than 22,000 acres in Carbon and Monroe counties that supply drinking water to the Bethlehem area, has worked at least since 2009 to develop the wind project. Like timbering, the effort seeks to generate revenue for the authority that owns the Bethlehem water system and leases it to the city to operate.
Atlantic Wind LLC, following a contentious review of the project in Carbon's Penn Forest Township, won local approval last year for its plan to put 37 wind-power turbines on township land it is leasing from the water authority. The subsidiary of Portland, Oregon-based Avangrid Renewables asserted the project as "deemed approved" by exploiting a technicality related to a delay in the township's scheduling of a hearing as part of its review.
Carbon County Judge Steven R. Serfass, in a ruling Dec. 29, upheld the approval.
State Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, blasted the authority and the approval process in calling for a voter referendum on whether to permit the project to move forward.
"What a back-doored, underhanded way of doing business," Heffley told lehighvalleylive.com, referring to the authority: "They really showed their true colors in that."
Officials have said the turbines should be visible, within what is referred to as the area's viewshed, from parts of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Northeast Extension, the Penn's Peak entertainment venue and restaurant outside Jim Thorpe and the nearby Towamensing Trails housing development, Bethlehem Authority minutes say.
Heffley cites the effect on the viewshed as reason to oppose the wind turbines, along with construction activities' potential impact on the natural environment of the watershed itself.
"They have their own agenda and it's about money and I would think the people of Bethlehem should be concerned," the fourth-term lawmaker said. "This will do nothing to enhance the quality of water for the people of Bethlehem."
Heffley announced Jan. 18 he introduced an amendment to Senate Bill 656, legislation addressing municipal authority projects, to require local voter approval for the wind-power project in a referendum. If it fails, the authority would be barred from requesting another ballot initiative on the project for five years.
A second amendment he introduced to the bill seeks to require municipal authorities to pay all applicable taxes on land they choose to develop commercially. The Bethlehem Authority last year paid $20,375 in lieu of property taxes to Carbon County, a fraction of what it would owe on the land's value, and is now looking to change use of its watershed land to "heavy industrial," he asserts.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the controversial natural gas line just before a government shutdown.
Stephen Repasch, Bethlehem Authority executive director, said he doesn't believe Heffley's amendments would have any bearing on the project, given that it's already received local approval.
"Once the project's approved, it's almost like you can't retroactively pass that law," Repasch said. "We don't think those amendments are going to go anywhere and we're just keeping an eye on it to see what our options are, but we don't believe those amendments have any validity."
The authority and Atlantic Wind entered into an agreement March 6, 2013, to permit the study of the watershed's potential for wind-power generation. The authority has been receiving $10,000 a year for nearly five years, with that amount set to rise to $100,000 annually for another five years beginning in March 2018.
Once the turbines are operational, the authority is due to receive annual payments of at least $100,000, or 3 percent of gross revenues estimated at $8,000 to $15,000 per turbine for 25 years.
Atlantic Wind would sell the power generated to a transmission company.
The project is subject to an appeal filed in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court by Atlantic Wind against the Penn Forest Township Zoning Hearing Board, two township residents and the Bethlehem Authority, court records show. The complaint is listed for a tentative session before the court April 9.
Paul Copleman, spokesman for Avangrid Resources, declined to comment on how the suit or any other potential litigation might affect the project.
The company is not ready to break ground on the project, he said by email Friday.
"A lengthy and science-based permitting process remains, at the state and federal level," Copleman wrote.
The bill to which Heffley introduced his amendments is before the House Consumer Affairs Committee, according to a news release from his office.
"It's mind-boggling that the Bethlehem Authority would even be contemplating this type of project in the watershed," he said.