A politically divisive Eastern Shore wind energy project hit a new roadblock Thursday, as the Pentagon lodged a formal objection to it, saying the towering turbines would interfere with operations at Naval Air Station Patuxent River across the Chesapeake Bay.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democratic House leader whose Southern Maryland district includes the naval air base, released a letter from the Department of Defense declaring the Great Bay Energy Center proposed in Somerset County "would constitute an unacceptable risk to the security of the United States."
The letter, signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, does not elaborate. But Hoyer said Pentagon officials had concluded the turbines pose "a significant threat" to the "world-class stealth radar system" used at the base.
Hoyer, the House minority whip, and his aide, John Bohanan, a Democratic state delegate who also represents the base community, have waged a dogged campaign in Washington and Annapolis to block the wind project. They and other base supporters fear the wind project could lead to cutbacks or even the closing of "Pax River," which they say supports 22,500 jobs in the region, and where the Navy tests new aircraft.
The issue has pitted Southern Maryland politicians against their Shore counterparts, and military interests against environmentalists, many of whom back the development of such renewable energy projects. The $200 million, 25-turbine project would generate much-needed tax revenue and some employment for one of Maryland's poorest counties, proponents point out.
With Hoyer and other members of Maryland's congressional delegation lined up against the project, state lawmakers enacted a 15-month moratorium this year on industrial-sized turbines to protect the base. The delay was needed, base advocates said, to allow for completion of a Pentagon-sponsored study of whether anything could prevent turbines from interfering with radar.
But the wind project developers warned the moratorium could kill their project, as tax credits crucial to financing it are due to expire. Late last year, the developers pointed out, the Navy tentatively accepted the company's offer to avoid any interference by turning off the turbines whenever the base wanted to operate its radar for stealth aircraft testing.
Gov. Martin O'Malley vetoed the moratorium, coming down on the side of promoting more renewable energy while saying the federal government already has a process to work the issue out. Hoyer and others appealed to the Pentagon, though, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, moved to amend defense spending legislation to bar the Navy from agreeing to the project until the study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was completed next year.
In releasing the Defense Department letter Thursday, Hoyer issued a statement saying he also supports renewable energy but "until that taxpayer-funded study is complete, we must be vigilant in protecting Pax River's mission."
But Adam Cohen, vice president of Pioneer Green Energy, the Texas-based firm proposing the project, countered that the Pentagon has signed agrements to allow wind projects near other military bases. The deputy secretary's brief letter characterizes the company's offer to turn off its turbines as inadequate but doesn't explain.
"As the Navy has never presented any data to contradict the agreement they originally approved," Cohen said in a statement, "this action appears to be driven more by politics than an honest attempt to honor the landowners' Constitutional rights and promote our nation's goal of achieving energy independence through the development of more clean, renewable energy."
The Navy isn't the project's only hurdle. The turbines also have sparked opposition from bird lovers over the likelihood that the spinning blades would kill some bald eagles. Project developers have been negotiating with federal wildlife officials over how to mitigate those effects.
Some local residents also have expressed fear of vibrations and possible drops in property values. Somerset's planning commission considered restricting the height of turbines in the county, but this week recommended limits that would accommodate the project, accoring to Paul Harris, Pioneer Green's manager for the Shore project.