The planned Amazon Wind Farm in eastern North Carolina was announced in July in a ceremony that featured Gov. Pat McCrory amid applauding ranks of state and local officials. Today construction crews are putting in access roads in preparation for the next step: Pouring concrete foundations for 104 turbines early next year.
But some local residents, with the financial backing of free-market advocates in Raleigh, are taking legal steps to block the energy project in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties before its whirling blades get their first chance to catch the coastal air currents.
Jillanne Gigi Badawi and her husband Stephen Owens, residents of Perquimans County, are asking the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings to force state regulators to subject the Amazon wind project to a new regulatory review. The couple is being aided by the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank that has criticized renewable energy as a costly boondoggle.
The couple lives less than a mile from the site of the nearest turbine and is worried about property values, esthetics, noise and potential risk to bats and birds.
“I’m concerned it will make our beautiful county, quite frankly, ugly,” Badawi said. “Each turbine is the size of the Washington Monument. These things are huge monstrosities.”
Their suit was filed last week against the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, the agency that would oversee the regulatory review they are requesting. Iberdrola, the project developer, is not a party to the suit; neither is Amazon, the online retailer that will buy the electrical output for its data center in Northern Virginia.
A new regulatory review – requiring wildlife studies, noise impact studies, shadow flicker studies and pubic hearings in the two affected counties – could take more than a year, a delay that would likely kill the project. Iberdrola must have the site in operation by the end of 2016 so it can qualify for a federal tax credit that will cut the project cost by 30 percent.
Officials at the Department of Environmental Quality, previously known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, decided in April that the Amazon Wind Farm is not subject to the state’s 2013 wind siting act, and they have repeated that interpretation in presentations and interviews since. The law specifically exempted Iberdrola’s wind farm because the project had already received safety determination letters from the Federal Aviation Administration, they said.
“It was a tough call,” said DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart last month in an interview. “It was the first time the statute had been interpreted.”
“Ultimately,” van der Vaart said, “as long as you had an FAA determination on the date, even if you lost it later or changed it, you’re done.”
Iberdrola has secured about a dozen permits, approvals and certificates for the wind farm. They include the N.C. Utilities Commission, state erosion-control and storm-water permits, county conditional use permits, and approval from the Department of Defense Siting Clearinghouse.
“The project has all the local, state and federal permits needed thanks to years of scientific study evaluating the site and a rigorous review process,” said Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman.
Civitas says the case is not so straightforward. A year after North Carolina’s wind siting act became law, Iberdrola made changes to the project design. As a result, the latest iteration of the wind farm is not the one that was exempted under the 2013 wind farm siting law, said Badawi’s and Owens’ attorney, Elliot Engstrom, staff attorney for the Center for Law and Freedom within the Civitas Institute.
“This is a new facility,” Engstrom said. “This statute was enacted to protect citizens who live near these things.”
Specifically, Iberdrola, a Spanish renewables developer, reduced the number of turbines from 150 to 104, and increased the blade-tip height of the turbines from 486 feet to 499 feet. Iberdrola removed 46 turbines from the project to eliminate interference with a military radar installation.
Badawi, an IT administrator, and Owens, a fire fighter, are not the first to raise this issue. In August, two Pasquotank County residents made similar claims to the Office of Administrative Hearings. The OAH dismissed one claim, saying it didn’t show how the resident was harmed by the wind farm. The other claim, filed as a citizen lawsuit, was voluntarily withdrawn.
“The opposition to this project is a minority, but one that holds very intense feelings,” said Wayne Harris, director of the Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission.
DEQ, when it was called DENR, raised the issue in March, but the agency reversed itself six weeks later after reviewing documents and after Harris and others got involved. Harris wrote to Assistant Commerce Secretary Patricia Mitchell to build support for the wind farm, then called Desert Wind, within the McCrory Administration.
“Now, three years after the fact, DENR is proposing to subject Desert Wind to North Carolina’s lengthy and untested review process,” Harris wrote. “This will almost surely kill the project, costing Pasquotank County nearly $8 million in lost tax revenues and its farmers more than $10 million in list lease revenues over the life of the project.”
Friends of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base sent a letter endorsing the wind farm to James Broughton, McCrory’s Deputy Chief of Staff.
In a recent interview, DEQ Deputy Secretary John Evans said the modifications to the wind farm were immaterial.
“They’re interesting but at the end of the day we looked a the plain reading of the statute,” Evans said. “It was pretty simple at the end.”