Mono County wind project has few supporters

A wind energy project proposed for an area north of Benton will be a hard sell, if recent public outcry is any indication.

Two public meetings and a field trip to the proposed test tower sites this past week and a half has done little to calm a skeptical public, even after one of the two proposed projects, the one with the largest potential footprint, was pulled July 5.

That left a project by ENEL company (Padoma) still alive. This project, could cover some 23,000 acres of high desert land north of Benton with twenty-five to thirty 400-foot tall wind power towers, should the currently proposed test tower project prove promising.

The fact that the public hearings were only supposed to be about a relatively small test tower project (two smaller test towers in place for three years) didnt help much either. In fact, despite repeated reminders from the Bureau of Land Management about the limited scope of this project, residents often concentrated on what would happen if the test project was successful and a real wind energy generation project was installed.

"It doesn't make sense to just look at this one project and not at the potential for the one that might follow," said Liz Sullivan, who attended the Monday night public meeting in Lee Vining. Others echoed Sullivan's sentiment, stating that the BLM needs to look closely at the area on which the final project would be sited, due to its wildlife, aesthetics, and relatively "pristine‚" nature. Given all the reasons a full project would be problematic, why even allow the test project to go through, they asked.

"I'm not opposed to wind energy but why did they chose a place that's considered a Class 3 viewshed?" asked one resident.

BLM realty specialist Larry Primosch noted that the BLM was obligated by a 2001 energy policy to process, and fast track when possible under existing laws, energy projects, including renewable energy projects. That law also triggered a federal government assessment of potential wind and other energy sources, which in turn led to the Benton site (along with several others in California) being identified.

There are several potential sites identified in the state, Primosch told the Lee Vining audience. But he said it is likely only one or two of them would actually be built, given how strict testing criteria is, and given the inevitable environmental issues, including potential public opposition.

The Bishop office of the BLM's field director, Bernadette Lovato, attended the Lee Vining and Benton meetings, as did several state and regional BLM officials.

Lovato said that once the comment period for the test project closed on July 30, she would finish the project's Environmental Assessment and make a final decision as to whether to grant Padoma the right of way to build their project. If the plan is approved, the two towers could be completed and on the ground before the winter begins, she said.

But a much more extensive public review and public comment process would accompany any following project, she said. Such a project would require a full Environmental Impact Statement, which is often a several-year analysis of everything from wildlife to socioeconomic impacts to aesthetic and watershed impacts. An EIS requires several public hearings and goes through a draft and final stage, each with opportunities for comment.