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Immense opposition stymies development

The wind swept Columbia Hills above Oregon's and Washington's Columbia River have been the focus of wind power enthusiasts since the early 1990s. In fact, three projects have been proposed for the region, which is prized for its scenic beauty, threatened wildlife and Native American cultural resources. But environmentalists and tribes who generally support wind power development oppose any activity in the Columbia Hills and their vocal opposition has thrown into question the status of two -- perhaps three -- of the projects.

"We do support wind power development, but not in the Columbia Hills," says Dennis White, conservation director for the Columbia Gorge Chapter of the National Audubon Society. "There are thousands of acres in Oregon and Washington that are more suitable sites."

On the drawing board since the early 1990s has been a 25 MW project proposed for the Columbia Hills' Juniper Point by the Conservation and Renewable Energy System (CARES). Just east and west of that project, Enron has proposed two 115 MW wind plants that were originally conceived by now bankrupt Kenetech Windpower. And Gary Kitchen, an entrepreneur, wants to install 16 turbines in the area.

The Columbia Hills are an inappropriate site because they serve as habitat for a number of threatened and endangered species, including bald eagles, says White. An environmental impact statement identified 34 species that are either protected by the Endangered Species Act or included on Washington state's list of endangered species.

Native American tribes that live along the river oppose the projects because the lands hold sacred burial grounds, are historic food gathering areas and are vision quest sites for some of the tribes, adds Johnny Jackson, a Cascade Klickitat tribal member. "We want the land left alone," he says. "They could put the wind plants somewhere else, where the natives know there are no cultural areas or sites."

Such opposition has apparently doomed the 25 MW project proposed by CARES and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). Site owner Goldendale Aluminum, owner of 6500 acres above the Columbia River, recently said it would not lease its land unless the BPA, CARES, the US Department of Energy and the US Department of Interior agreed to hold the company harmless in the event of an environmental lawsuit, says Gerry Miller, vice president of energy and general counsel for Goldendale Aluminum in Washington. The company's request was rejected by the agencies, he says.

FEAR OF REPRISALS

"The bottom line is, the board of this corporation has taken the position it will not lease its property to a wind project without all those federal agencies signing off on the provision," he says. "They won't do it, so we don't see the project happening here." Goldendale Aluminum is especially worried about lawsuits pertaining to bird kills at the site. The company initially agreed to provide a site for the project because Miller and the company's owner, Brett Wilcox, are renewable energy enthusiasts. But they decided that without a hold-harmless provision, the company is too vulnerable, says Miller.

George Darr, senior engineer for BPA, the project owner, says BPA does not know what it is going to do at this point. The federal power marketing agency wants to take part in two wind projects and is already involved in PacifiCorp's Wyoming Wind Project. "I am hopeful at some point a project could be done at the [Columbia Hills] site," he says. He notes that a project has been on the drawing board since 1992, when BPA issued a Request For Proposals for renewable resources.

Opposition from the Audubon Society has slowed Gary Kitchen's plans. His project was recently remanded to the Klickitat County Planning Department for further studies. "Kitchen's is the kind of project I would like to support," says the Audubon's White. "It's proposed by a small entrepreneur. It's a locally designed project, and the power would go to the local Public Utility District. The scale is appropriate, but it happens to be in the wrong place."

NO COMMENT

The status of the third and largest project -- a total of 230 MW proposed by Enron Wind -- is unclear. A law suit opposing the project lodged by the Audubon Society is pending in the Superior Court of Klickitat County, says White. Mary McCann, for Enron Wind Corp, declines to discuss the project's status. "There's nothing we can release about the project right now," she says.

The Audbon Society is clearly adamant in its opposition, however. "We strongly support wind power development. This is a facility site planning issue. When projects are proposed for areas where they are certain to kill endangered species and degrade a world class landscape, it will only give wind power a black eye," says White.

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