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Lessons not learned yet on industrial power facility siting

A century ago in our drive for energy, we built what was called the “eighth wonder of the world” and harnessed the renewable power of water. It disrupted communities and transformed the landscape forever. Hard knocks lessons learned from the Columbia Basin Project apply to the current push to harness the wind.

A “wind farm” is no more a farm than Grand Coulee Dam is a home for beavers. What developers are selling to landowners in Lincoln and Spokane counties are industrial energy production facilities.

To farm is to cultivate the soil to produce food and fiber. Successful multi-generational farmers manage for the long-term sustainability of land and communities. Farms in Eastern Washington provide habitat for wildlife as well as livestock and crops. The intermingled potholes and rangelands left by the Ice Age floods are a key part of the life cycle of multiple species of migratory birds using the strong prevailing winds as flyways.

We can build a ladder around a dam and adjust water flows to reduce the hazards of slack water to migrating salmon. Not even Bruce Wayne could build a “bat ladder” around a massive spread of wind turbines. A greater hazard than simple impact with the blades is turbulence, creating pockets of lower pressure and leading to collapsed lungs and burst blood vessels, according to studies referenced in Scientific American in 2008.

Bat Conservation International, founded in 1982, says “collisions with wind energy turbines are one of the leading causes of bat mortality in North America and Europe … fatality rates of bats at wind energy facilities have the potential to cause rapid declines in bat populations and increase the risk of extinction.”

A study published in Science magazine set the annual value of pest-controlling bats to agriculture in Lincoln County alone at approximately $28.6 million. Killing birds and bats with turbine blades has cascading impacts on insect populations, including pollinators necessary for healthy rangeland flora supporting wildlife.

Building dams in the Columbia Basin has left us wrestling with the potential risk of extinction to migratory salmon and whole ecosystem impacts upstream. “Planting” wind turbines in the path of migratory bats and birds is no different, only now we can’t say we didn’t know any better.

Three companies are currently waving the illusion of easy money in return for signing 30-year leases. Triple Oak Power held an initial meeting several months ago. Tenaska and Cordelio Power have just opened a joint project office in Davenport. They are not farmers even if one guy wears a cowboy hat, and they’re not fooling their new neighbors into thinking they have any real interest in the health of the local community.

Calling them wind farms is a linguistic trick to make them sound benign. They are not.

Wind turbines create noise, including imperceptibly low infrasound as vibration. An Australian study reports peer-reviewed research substantiates “the potential for serious to moderate adverse health effects to individuals due to wind farm activity noise while living in their residences and while working on their farms near large-scale wind farms or large turbines.”

Tenaska’s project manager reassured the audience at a community meeting in Reardan there’d be at least 1,200 foot setbacks. The Australian study recommends a minimum distance to the nearest residence for a typical 325 to 488 foot tall turbine as 6,500 feet.

That’s not reassuring. County commissioners have already been asked to deny permits.

But local government is effectively cut out of the loop by the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. State Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, is as frustrated as county commissioners. “Powerful forces from the urban West Side say they want to be green, push growth management plans and then turn around and put industrial wind and solar in places growth management was supposed to protect.”

Hydroelectric dams received government subsidies for construction and operation and in return still provide clean energy, flood control, irrigation, transportation routes for barges to reduce trucks on the road, active recreation areas for all, and access to water for DNR’s Fire Boss planes. Other tradeoffs include salmon impact, which can be mitigated to some extent, and the loss of scenic and cultural values in places like Celilo Falls, never to be restored.

Industrial wind installations mine government subsidies for construction and operation, provide intermittent energy without combustion, and have a theoretical net reduction in atmospheric carbon. That’s it. Industrial wind facilities are a barrier to aerial firefighting. Other tradeoffs include devalued human health, disrupted ecosystems, and the loss of the scenic and cultural values of dark skies.

There’s a reason power companies avoid nighttime photos of wind turbines. They’re ugly.

Dye has watched the impact on her community in Garfield County. “They provide an initial burst of new property taxes but on a depreciation schedule that leaves essential services without support,” Dye said. “They leave behind a permanently damaged landscape and divided communities.”

A century after embarking on one of the greatest landscape transformations in the history of the world, we have forgotten what a farm is and we still haven’t learned to touch the environment with humility.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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