Environmentalists say species harm assessment inadequate
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Environmental groups want to stop a wind power project in southeastern Oregon they claim was unlawfully approved by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association and the Audubon Society of Portland have asked a federal court to overturn the BLM's approval of a transmission line the project depends on.
Last year, the agency granted wind power developer Columbia Energy Partners permission to build a transmission line across 12 miles of public land near the Steens Mountain area.
The BLM's approval was key to the company's plan to build a 100-megawatt wind power farm on roughly 15 acres of a private ranch near Diamond, Ore.
Plaintiffs claim the government violated environmental law by inadequately assessing how the project will harm species like the sage grouse.
The complaint seeks "injunctive relief" to prevent preliminary development efforts.
"There are a lot of flaws in the BLM's analysis," said Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. "You'd be hard pressed to find an area with more conflicts and impacts than Steens Mountain."
Chris Crowley, president of Columbia Energy Partners, said he could not comment on the litigation. A spokesperson for BLM said the agency is reviewing the complaint and preparing a response.
Steve Grasty, Harney County judge, said he is "openly angry" about the lawsuit because the county government has been trying to cooperate with environmental groups on natural resource issues.
"If this is collaboration, I don't get it," he said.
The county's citizens have been overwhelmingly supportive of the project's potential to boost the economy with construction and maintenance work, Grasty said.
"It brings in a significant amount of revenue not only to county government but with jobs," he said.
By providing more revenue to ranchers, it also keeps their operations more profitable and can save families from having to split up their properties due to succession issues, Grasty said.
Columbia Energy Partners voluntarily agreed to cancel two similarly-sized wind farms in response to environmental concerns, he said. "They got everything they asked for, but they still come back at us."
Fenty said there's nothing to prevent the company or another developer from pursuing those other projects at a later time, especially since the transmission line can accommodate much more power.
"I think the public has the right to know exactly where these turbines will be put and what the impacts will be," he said.
Fenty said his group supports renewable energy, including wind and geothermal projects in other parts of Oregon, but the harm to the Steens Mountain area would be particularly serious.
"You can't pursue that goal at all costs," he said.