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Preliminary approval has been granted for a $200 million wind project in Maine by Kenetech Windpower, but only after controversy surfaced over close ties between top state officials and Kenetech. On August 17, the state Land Use Regulatory Commission (LURC) nodded approval to Kenetech's 210 MW wind plant in the Boundary Mountains. A final development plan must now be approved by LURC before Kenetech can proceed with installing the 639 turbines.

The August vote was 4-2 in favour of zoning approval, and followed three hours of sometimes heated discussion. Public hearings of the proposal had been held 18 months previously, and environmental regulators had approved the massive project more than a year ago. But it became bogged down at LURC with concerns about potentially serious environmental impact -- on soils, wildlife and scenery -- and amidst accusations of political interference by recently-elected Governor Angus King, who is not affiliated to either major political party.

The project would be built on mountainous forest land, mainly owned by major paper companies, in the north-western mountains of the state near the Quebec border. The largest wind farm west of the Mississippi, it is planned to be on-line by late 1996. Kenetech says it hopes to start construction early next year to meet that deadline.

As part the approval, Kenetech must release data immediately on possible bird impacts, include in its final plan information on power contracts with buyers of electricity, submit details of soil studies and erosion control plans, and show how it might minimise road construction at the sute. Commissioners, however, rejected a proposal to have Kenetech build the project in phases -- a scenario the wind company vehemently opposed -- and elicited a promise that Kenetech award at least 80 to 90% of the construction jobs on the wind farm to locals. The state has a high jobless rate.

The project is broadly supported by environmental groups. Kenetech has agreed too to set aside $300,000 to buy land to be permanently protected against development, and has pledged $150,000 for state research on golden eagles. "We believe that on balance, this project will have a positive impact on both the people and the environment of Maine," four environmental leaders wrote in a newspaper editorial in July.

Political interference

Charges of political interference stem in part from ties between the state's leading politician and local Kenetech representative, Chris Herter. Governor Angus King and Herter have been friends for 20 years and were once business partners in a hydro project. Kenetech's Maine attorney also worked for the governor last year. State planning director Evan Richert argued for zoning changes as a paid consultant to Kenetech before he was appointed by King.

But the most eyebrow raising turn of events took place in June when King's conservation commissioner, Ronald Lovaglio, replaced LURC staffers who gave Kenetech's project a negative review. They had pointed out that the potential impact on the fragile mountainous soils and endangered birds were serious project flaws. Following the staff replacements, another LURC employee resigned, protesting against heavy-handed tactics.

Subsequent revision

The LURC analysis was subsequently revised to be favourable. The revision stressed the project's positive impact on the local economy.

Although LURC is technically independent, it is also part of Lovaglio's conservation department. "These series of eventsÉ strongly suggest that extreme political pressure is being applied to get the project approved, regardless of the environmental laws," wrote one staffer, Fred Griffith, who was reassigned. However, Herter and other critics of the report before it was revised -- including some LURC commissioners -- said it was originally biased and selective in the facts that were included.

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