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Boating Interests Lose Wind Farm Battle

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The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday granted a permit to construct the first freshwater wind turbine facility in North America — a project dubbed “Icebreaker Wind” by the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB).

The project proposes building six turbines off the Cleveland, Oh., lakefront in Lake Erie. It’s being promoted as “only a demonstration project” by the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. (LEEDCO) but could possibly trigger the construction of 1,600 additional turbines in the lake.

The project is opposed by various boating, fishing, residential and environmental groups, claiming there have been inadequate environmental studies in the planning phases, possibly jeopardizing the future of Ohio’s most precious natural resource.

“We had hoped the court would see that OPSB’s decision approving Icebreaker failed to take into account critical environmental concerns,” says Gary Tennefoss, chairman of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association. “For years, we have been appropriately calling for the same full environmental impact statement that’s been required of every other proposed offshore wind farm along the U.S. East Coast. [OPSB] has not wanted to do such a study and been inappropriately allowed to avoid it. That’s just wrong.” he adds.

At issue before the court was whether OPSB followed the law in granting a construction permit. The court ruled in a six-to-one majority that it had. Writing for the majority, Justice Jennifer Brunner penned that the OPSB collected the necessary research to allow Icebreaker to begin construction while also requiring far more data before the company can operate the turbines. The specifics of those requirements were not clear at this writing.

“Rather than requiring Icebreaker to resolve those matters before issuing the certificate,” wrote Justice Brunner, “[we] determined that the conditions on its grant of the application were sufficient to protect birds and bats and to ensure that the facility represented the minimum adverse environmental impact.”

While violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is one contention against the wind project, opponents to the industrialization of the lake cite a range of still unknown ramifications, including the negative impact on Lake Erie’s prized fisheries; the uprooting of 100 years of carcinogen-laden dredged materials dumped in the lake off Cleveland; the danger that millions of Ohio residents could be negatively impacted because the lake is their drinking water supply; and the now-documented fact that spinning turbine blades cast off microplastics into the waters that are ingested by fish and can’t be removed from drinking water, among other concerns.

Justice Sharon Kennedy wrote the dissenting opinion. She penned that the board held the project to less scrutiny because it is a first-of-its-kind demonstration project. She stated that state law does not make exceptions for demonstration projects, and the board failed to gather the required data regarding the environmental impacts, including its impact on aquatic and avian wildlife, before issuing the certificate. If more relaxed standards should apply to demonstration projects, that decision must be made by the legislature, she wrote.

Notably, the OPSB argued in its brief that it followed the law. But it also admitted that the project’s small scale was a factor when it was evaluating its environmental impact.

The OPSB made more than 30 conditions for the wind farm developers to follow, including monitoring wildlife activity before and after construction, from Apr. 1 through Nov. 15 each year. The board is also requiring collision mitigation technology be installed before turbine operations can begin, among other requirements.

“We have spent 50 years and billions of dollars to bring Lake Erie back from once being the icon for the nation’s polluted waterways and return it to the wonderful asset it is now for all Ohioans and millions of annual visitors,” said Jim Stouffer, president of the Lake Erie Foundation. “Our organization is not opposed to clean energy, but we will adamantly stand against any plan that could damage or destroy this great resource for generations to come.”

The battle for Lake Erie is sure to continue. So, while boating and fishing interests have lost this engagement in court, the quest is far from over. 

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