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New western Maryland wind energy project in works

While Maryland lawmakers debate whether to subsidize a large wind energy project in the Atlantic Ocean off Ocean City, an Annapolis company is moving ahead with plans for the state's third land-based wind "farm."

Synergics Wind Energy LLC, which built Maryland's second wind project along a mountain ridge near the West Virginia border, is seeking state and local permits to erect 24 turbines on similar terrain just west of Frostburg in Garrett County.

But the proposal is renewing concerns raised by some western Maryland resident about the state's first two wind projects, in particular the towering windmills' proximity to homes and their potential to kill birds and bats, including one listed as endangered in Maryland. Some also worry that construction of this project could clear a large swath of forest and harm the nearby Savage River, one of Maryland's premier trout streams.

It's unclear how much weight regulators will give those concerns, as the company is requesting speedy state approval of its plans under a controversial 2007 law that streamlines review for wind power projects that generate 70 megawatts or less of electricity. Synergics' Four-Mile Ridge project would have a 60-megawatt capacity. The Maryland Public Service Commission is scheduled to take up the company's application on Feb. 13.

Wayne L. Rogers, president of Synergics, said the company hopes to start construction by April and finish by year's end, taking advantage of a one-year extension by Congress of a lucrative federal tax credit for renewable energy projects. He noted that the company has been studying and planning the project for the past five years.

While wind-generated electricity costs more than power from coal, natural gas or nuclear plants, there's a market for it because of state mandates that energy suppliers buy a growing share of power from renewable sources like wind, solar and biomass. Under Maryland law, 20 percent of the electricity sold in the state must come from such sources by 2022.

The $100 million project would be an economic boon for rural Garrett, said Rogers, noting that the county gets about $2 million a year in tax revenues from the other two wind projects built on Backbone Mountain near Oakland.

"Their school budget last year would have been short something like $700,000, but for the taxes coming in from wind power projects," Rogers said. The taxes to be paid by the latest project, he added, would be on par with what the county might realize from building 1,000 new homes.

The turbines would have no significant impact on birds or bats, he said, and the project had been designed to avoid or minimize impacts on sensitive wetlands, streams and rivers.

Others are not so sure, noting issues with the state's first two wind projects, including the one Synergics developed and has since sold to Gestamp Wind, a multinational corporation based in Spain. Both projects were fined by the Maryland Department of the Environment for failures to control erosion and sediment pollution during their construction in 2010.

Federal regulators are considering requiring Exelon Power to take steps at the Criterion wind project, the state's first, to reduce the number of endangered Indiana bats its 28 turbines may kill. The company also is looking to reduce its turbines' impact on birds after monitoring in their first year of operation found the project had the highest bird-kill rate of any wind facility studied in the United States.

Rogers said his consultants did not find any evidence of Indiana bats in the vicinity of the Four-Mile Ridge project site.

But Julie Slacum, who monitors wind projects for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noted that all of Garrett County is considered potential habitat for the small, insect-eating bat. Though found across much of the eastern United States, the Indiana bat is considered extremely rare and has been listed as endangered since 1967. As for the bird kills, Slacum said further monitoring by the company has found far fewer carcasses, suggesting adjustments in lighting and operations have reduced the mortality.

A state scientist, meanwhile, said there's evidence that Four-Mile Ridge is home to another bat considered extremely rare in Maryland, though not nationally. Gwen Brewer, science program manager for the wildlife and heritage service of the Department of Natural Resources, said Synergics' consultant reported catching three Eastern small-footed bats in the vicinity of the project site. The bat is on the state's endangered species list; under state law, Brewer said, that means it's supposed to be protected from harm, even on private property.

But Brewer said her office is limited in what it can do to influence the location or design of the Synergics project because of the 2007 law reducing regulatory review of wind facilities. Legislators streamlined the process after the Public Service Commission ordered changes in the turbine layout for Synergics' first planned wind project to protect wildlife habitat. Rogers, a former Democratic party chairman who served on Gov. Martin O'Malley's transition committee, objected to the conditions. He and other wind supporters successfully appealed to lawmakers, arguing that worthwhile renewable energy projects were being held up by excessive red tape.

Even though Synergics is no longer required to get DNR's approval to build wind projects, Brewer said she hoped the company would consult with state biologists on how to prevent harm to wildlife, particularly the endangered bats.

"On any scale, the Eastern small-footed bat is of concern," she said. "So I hope we'll be able to work with Mr. Rogers to avoid an impact."

Others say their concerns go beyond bats. J. Edward Gates, a wildlife biologist at the University of Maryland's Appalachian Environmental Laboratory in Frostburg, said three-fourths of the turbines are planned in "sensitive areas" containing endangered species, streams and fresh-water wetlands. The project would clear about 120 acres of forested ridge and mountainside, moving an estimated 400,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock.

"Runoff from the project construction can carry sediment into sensitive wetlands and tributaries of the Savage River," Gates said in an email. "Diesel fuel, gasoline and oil spills from construction equipment have the potential to contaminate water resources and kill plants and animals in affected areas."

His concerns are more than academic, as he said his own home would be about 2,000 feet from one turbine, one of more than two dozen homes that close or closer to one of the towers, which can be up to 400 feet tall. Some people living near turbines have complained about noise and vibrations from them, while others worry about the potential for harm if one breaks apart or falls.

Rogers said the project would not impact the wetlands, and a bridge would be built across at least one stream to minimize risk of muddying the water. All but a few of the homes in the area would be at least 1,000 feet from a turbine, and he said owners of dwellings closer than that all had signed agreements with his company.

Garrett has no zoning in much of the county and no setback requirements for wind turbines. Del. Wendell Beitzel, a Republican representing Garrett, said he and other western Maryland lawmakers had tried without success for years to get legislation passed that would allow the county's commissioners to prohibit turbines within a certain distance of homes. Beitzel said he planned to introduce it again this year and believes it may pass, though if it does it would be too late to affect the proposed Synergics project.

The county's only say over such projects now is limited mainly to seeing that they do not produce erosion or storm-driven runoff of mud and other pollutants. Jim Torrington, Garrett's chief of permits and inspections, said he's reviewing project plans, and new rules are pending aimed at tightening pollution safeguards. He noted that the county would only issue building permits once the project has received all other state and federal permits or approvals, including a green light from the Federal Aviation Administration that the turbines don't pose a hazard to aviation.

Save Western Maryland, a group of residents concerned about wind and other energy development in their midst, is going to press for careful scrutiny of the Frostburg area project, said Eric Robison, one of its leaders said. The group threatened to sue the two wind projects on Backbone Mountain over their impacts on legally protected bats, and not long afterward Constellation Energy, before it merged with Exelon, contacted federal wildlife regulators to work out a plan for minimizing the harm to bats and birds.

Robison, who lives near those wind projects, said he's especially worried about the Frostburg plan because of Synergics' earlier track record. His complaints about the clearing practices of Synergics' construction company prompted state regulators to shut the project down temporarily to fix sediment and erosion control violations on the site. White Construction also paid a $35,000 penalty.

Tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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