State regulators soon will be taking public comments on the environmental impact of putting 25 wind turbines taller than Roanoke’s highest skyscraper on top of North Mountain in Botetourt County.
A 30-day comment period, to begin May 5, is part of an application process that Apex Clean Energy has initiated with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
The department is charged with evaluating the proposed wind farm’s effect on surrounding natural resources, including wildlife, streams and vegetation.
Opponents have said the spinning blades of the giant windmills will kill birds and bats, and that placing the 550-foot-tall turbines on a pristine ridgeline will cause erosion and stream water contamination.
However, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward, who oversees the DEQ, already has expressed support for the project.
“If approved, this site would be home to the first commercial wind farm in Virginia and would mark a huge step toward the Commonwealth’s renewable energy goals,” Ward wrote in a Jan. 21 letter to the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors, shortly before the board approved a special exception permit for the wind farm.
A group of wind farm opponents in neighboring Rockbridge County took exception to Ward’s comments, saying she had improperly interjected herself in a local zoning process. Apex needed the county’s approval before it could submit an application to the DEQ.
“Because Secretary Ward has already indicated her support for the project, any objective analysis or scrutiny by the Department of Environmental Quality or other agencies has been compromised,” Denise Neas of Virginians for Responsible Energy wrote in an April 4 letter asking the state inspector general’s office to investigate.
A spokeswoman for Inspector General June Jennings said this week that “after a review it was determined that the allegations did not warrant an ... investigation” by the office.
Ward’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. The secretary recently attended an environmental symposium at Virginia Military Institute where Gov. Terry McAuliffe also spoke favorably of the Botetourt wind farm during the event’s keynote address.
McAuliffe said afterward that while he supports renewable energy in general and the wind farm in particular, his comments were not intended to influence the DEQ, which will conduct an independent analysis of Apex’s application.
To date, Apex has not submitted an application to the DEQ for what it calls the Rocky Forge Wind project. A copy is expected to be available at the Eagle Rock Library by the time the public comment period begins May 5, company spokesman Kevin Chandler said.
Comments can be submitted to the company by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Apex Clean Energy, 310 4th Street NE, Suite 200, Charlottesville, VA, 22902. The company will forward the responses it receives to the DEQ as part of the application process.
Apex also plans to host a May 25 public meeting at the Eagle Rock Library, where people can speak for or against the project or submit written comments from 5 to 7 p.m.
Plans call for a Y-shaped formation of wind turbines that would extend for 3.5 miles along two ridgelines of North Mountain, about 5 miles northeast of Eagle Rock. Electricity generated by the turbines will be transferred to the power grid through an existing utility line that crosses the property. The wind farm will create enough clean electricity to power 20,000 homes, Apex says.
The DEQ application process is permit-by-rule, meaning that the wind farm would be approved administratively if it meets 14 standard requirements. Before the expedited process was instituted in 2010, a wind farm applicant was required to get approval from the State Corporation Commission in a more complicated, quasi-judicial proceeding that could take years to play out.
Apex is still awaiting word from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is studying the wind farm’s impact on air traffic navigation. Other federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the Army Corps of Engineers, also will have a role in the approval process.
If the company clears all of the regulatory hurdles, it hopes to begin construction by the end of this year and have the turbines spinning by late 2017.