New York Overrides Municipal Ban on Industrial Wind Facility, Impacts Eagle Population
State Regulators in New York approved a 124-megawatt Bluestone industrial wind facility, despite strong objections from the Delaware Otsego Audubon Society and a last-minute zoning ordinance enacted by the Town of Sanford to block the project.
The New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment approved a 124-megawatt industrial wind facility called Bluestone, despite strong objections from the Delaware Otsego Audubon Society (DOAS) and a last-minute zoning ordinance enacted by the Town of Sanford to block the project.
Bluestone’s developer, multinational Calpine Corporation, praised the board’s decision, saying the facility, to be located on privately leased rural lands in eastern Broome County, will provide an additional source of revenue for landowners who will be able to continue with existing land uses such as forestry, mining, and hunting.
Calpine estimated the $200 million project, consisting of 29 wind turbines, will create 150 construction jobs and seven direct operational jobs and generate revenues for local governments through payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreements. Calpine also said lease payments to landowners will exceed $30 million over the life of the project.
Golden and bald eagles migrate through the region where the wind facility is to be located. As a result, DOAS joined with 27 bird clubs, other Audubon chapters, and other New York conservation groups to oppose siting the Bluestone industrial wind facility in Broome County.
DOAS has supported “properly sited” industrial wind facilities in the past, but this is the wrong facility in the wrong location, says DOAS Co-President Andrew Mason.
Audubon spent three migration and winter seasons monitoring raptors in the project area. Audubon surveys in late winter and spring in 2018 and 2019 documented the highest numbers of resident golden eagles ever found in New York State.
“We prepared reports on our studies and submitted them as part of the record on the case,” Mason said. “Unfortunately, the responsible state agencies and the administrative law judges involved in this review are ignoring the preponderance of on-the-ground direct observations of high numbers of eagles precisely where wind turbines will be located.
“It is doubtful a worse location for risk to eagles could be found in New York State,” Mason said.
Cuomo Triumphs Over Locals
Residents of Sanford, one of the towns where the windmills are to be placed, voiced a variety of concerns, including objections to noise, health risks, the effect on eagles, and property values. This resulted in the town adopting a zoning ordinance that would have effectively prevented Bluestone from being developed at the desired location.
Siting Board Chairman John Rhodes, who doubles as chair of the New York Public Service Commission, waived compliance with the zoning ordinance on the grounds the town failed to object when the initial certificate was issued and enacted its moratorium after the conclusion of the evidentiary hearing and the filing of post-hearing briefs.
At Rhodes’ behest, the Siting Board determined the Bluestone project is a necessary component of a statewide effort to meet Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s goal of zero emissions of carbon dioxide from the electricity sector by 2040. The Bluestone project is the fourth wind farm approved by the board since August, representing 577 megawatts of “emissions-free” electric power generation.
Eagle Death Data Hidden
In a December press release, Mason said the state government essentially colluded with the wind developer to hide from the public the high estimates of eagle deaths shown in Audubon’s research.
“Calpine had initially submitted very high estimates of mortality for both bald and golden eagles in its environmental review but claimed confidentiality for the numbers,” Mason said. “The administrative law judges allowed Calpine to keep the data secret while providing much lower eagle death estimates to the public.”
The judges forbade Audubon from revealing the true numbers, which Mason said is “a direct violation of the transparency the public review process is supposed to provide.”
‘Uninformed and Clueless’ Opposition
Sanford rejected the Alliance for Wise Energy Decisions’ (AWED) offer of free help to challenge the Bluestone wind facility, and thus was unprepared to fight both the state government and a huge corporation, says John Droz, AWED’s executive director, who has worked directly with more than 100 communities to fight commercial wind projects.
“Well, what did they expect?” Droz said. “Calpine is a sophisticated, well-financed, and well-choreographed opponent.
“Every step the town and DOAS took was uninformed and clueless,” Droz said. “It was foolish to go up against a multinational corporation and the state government without professional help.”
Big Promises, Hidden Costs
Droz says more than 250 communities across the nation have been approached by wind developers with promises of financial windfalls, but the developers never acknowledge the associated costs, which often exceed the promised benefits.
“Faced with the promises of big revenues, local opponents are never going to win by citing bird kills or health effects,” Droz said. “The benefits Calpine touted are not guaranteed but are based on actual power generation by the turbines, yet hundreds of independent experts have undertaken studies concluding there are lots of unaccounted-for economic liabilities locally, none of which the state or the developer disclosed to Sanford’s residents.”
New York is a home-rule state, so a local ordinance is normally sufficient to stop a project, but apparently not when the residents’ interest conflict with the governor’s political agenda, Droz said.
Duggan Flanakin (email@example.com) writes from Austin, Texas.