Democrats Lead Fight against West Virginia Wind Farms

Published February 1, 2006

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall, both West Virginia Democrats, are leading a high-profile fight against industrial wind farms on the state’s mountaintop ridges.

At issue is an existing industrial wind farm complex in Tucker County atop the West Virginia Allegheny Plateau–the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi River–and four even larger industrial wind farms proposed for nearby mountain ridges. The proposed wind farms in Grant, Greenbrier, and Pendleton counties would result in a 10-fold increase in giant wind turbines in West Virginia’s mountain country.

Congressman Addresses Citizens

Mollohan voiced his opposition to the proposed wind farms in a letter read at a public meeting of concerned citizens December 15 at the Charleston Civic Center.

Mollohan wrote, “Because of the huge physical size of these projects, their starkly industrial appearance, and the fact that they dominate the view of the entire area in which they are located, these projects naturally raise concerns when they are proposed to be sited in areas that people enjoy for their scenic, natural beauty.”

Beyond the negative effect industrial wind farms have on West Virginia’s scenic ridgelines, Mollohan pointed out the projects make little economic sense. Mollohan’s letter noted wind power depends on “major tax preferences” from state and federal governments and yet still has trouble competing with conventional power sources.

Mollohan also expressed concern that environmental effects, including excessive bird and bat kills in addition to the disruption of West Virginia’s scenic beauty, could “become exponentially worse as the industry, supported by those government subsidies, expands … in environmentally sensitive areas.”

Potential Effects Unknown

“We are trying to grapple with this new industry, which is unregulated,” said Judy Rodd, senior vice president of the Highlands Conservancy and director of Friends of Blackwater, as reported in the December 15, 2005 Charleston Gazette.

Regarding the proposed expansion of industrial wind farms in West Virginia, Rodd continued, “There is no public debate, no science on this issue, no knowledge of the cumulative impacts of wind farms and no concern to weed out bad projects before they are built.”

What has been documented, however, is the deadly impact the current Tucker County industrial wind farm has had on area wildlife. A recent study conducted by Bat Conservation International discovered approximately 2,000 bats were killed by the Tucker County wind farm during a six-week period in 2004. The number of bats killed during this period was likely substantially lower than would typically be the case, said Merlin Tuttle, president of Bat Conservation International, because record cold kept bat activity abnormally low.

Tuttle believes the proposed 10-fold increase in wind turbines would kill more than 50,000 bats per year, which would harm the local ecosystem.

“Bats are the slowest reproducing mammals on the planet for their size, and there is no way they can sustain those kill rates,” Tuttle said. “If we continue to build these giant killing machines and place them in places like West Virginia mountain ridges, we run a very strong risk of pushing a very beneficial and once abundant species into endangered species status.

“Bats are just as important by night as birds are by day,” Tuttle explained. “They are absolutely instrumental in keeping harmful insect populations like mosquitoes and crop-destroying pests in check. Eliminate the bats, and the only other alternative is spraying substantially more pesticides on our food, on ourselves, and in our environment.”

Industry Rejects Compromise

“I can appreciate that we need other energy sources,” Jane Burch, a Grant County resident who lives near one of the proposed wind farms, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a December 14, 2005 article, “but I don’t like the look of them, and I don’t want them behind my property, and I don’t like what they do with the bat kills.”

Wildlife advocates have proposed, at a minimum, that current and proposed wind turbines not operate on nights when wind speeds are low and bats are most active.

That proposal did not sit well with Steve Stengel, spokesman for the Florida Power & Light company that owns and operates many of the existing and proposed wind turbines.” We don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense to be focusing on a solution that potentially could reduce the amount of power that is generated and potentially put stress on the machines,” Stengel told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Tuttle believes the farms are a danger to the environment. “As an environmentalist and as a conservationist heading a conservation agency, I certainly would like sustainable, environmentally friendly power,” he said. “I would like wind farms to succeed. But the more we study the issue, the more apparent it is that wind farms, and particularly wind farms along mountain ridges, are decimating bat populations. Wind power is not an environmentally friendly power source.”

James Hoare ([email protected]) is managing attorney at the Syracuse, New York office of McGivney, Kluger & Gannon.