Mineral County Commissioners – Ready – Fire – Aim!

If I ramble, I apologize.  It’s a fault I display when I’m stunned.

You see, the Keyser (WV) Mineral Daily News-Tribune Online reported today – “Commission 2-1 for wind farm,” and here’s sorta the way it played out.

After a closed meeting, Commissioner Pyle said, “I’ve been listening to all of this since 2002, and I’d like to move that we write a letter of support to the Public Service Commission supporting this project.”  Commissioner LaRue seconded.

According to the article, Commissioner Spiggle asked his fellow officials to postpone any decision until after the PSC holds the evidentiary hearing scheduled for Monday, Oct. 26 in Charleston.  He suggested that “the evidentiary hearings will bring out significant information.”

Commissioner LaRue, doing her best tortoise to hare morph said, “First we agreed to wait until after the public hearings, and now you’re asking us to do this.  I’ve read all there is to read about this. We’ve studied and studied and studied it.  No matter what we do, we’re not going to make everybody happy. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that we need jobs and we need the taxes.”

So, we’ve been studying this thing since 2002 and we’re two weeks away from critical evidence presentation and we can’t wait for two additional weeks.  Makes one wonder who lit the fire under the Commissioners rear ends.

If I were US WindForce and other proponents of the Pinnacle wind farm project I’d be asking “That’s it?  What the hell were you waiting  for?”

If I were the Allegheny Front Alliance and other opponents of the Pinnacle wind farm project I’d be asking “That’s it?  What the hell were you waiting for?”

I mean, after all … year after year and month after month and meeting after meeting and discussion after discussion and article after article and it comes down to needing jobs and tax money?  Why, exactly, did you waste our time?

The commissioners had to know way back then there would be jobs.  Seems fairly obvious since wind turbines the size of football fields weighing a few hundred thousand pounds don’t arrive already assembled.

Taxes?  Sure!  If a business person belches there’s justification for a new tax so construction of a $131 million project might be assumed to drop a few ducats into the kettle at the court house.

But am I now hearing that all the other issues, still unresolved, don’t matter?  Is that too harsh, or are we hearing they were simply outside of the Commission’s jurisdiction all the while?  That part doesn’t matter at this point, does it?

Here’s what does matter – both sides of the argument had a right, early on, to know what held the concern of the Commission.  There was really no purpose for the two sides to spend the time, effort and money to make persuasive arguments concerning numerous topics to folks who had no interest in anything other than tax money and jobs.

I certainly hope there is more to come about the discussion leading up to the decision to support the Pinnacle wind farm project.  I think the Citizens who expect their Commissioners to use resources productively deserve an explanation.  Commissioner Spiggle is right to question the project further and exhaust all information sources before lending our support.  Last I heard he was holding out for the full amount of revenue that was “committed” by US WindForce as the minimum acceptable.  Remember that little “If you make a promise, why be afraid to sign a contract to keep that promise?”  I hope the “suddenly tickled” duo aren’t selling us down the road on that also.

So, here’s my issue with the decision.

As the juggernaut of mountaintop tinker toys inches toward the finish line, these two Commissioners decided to give it a shove by taking the unnecessary and, in my mind, very questionable step of putting the County’s stamp of approval on a commercial project that not all Citizens they represent actually support.  Rather than the appropriate choice to endorse as private citizens, these two Commissioners, in an incredible display of their belief in their own self-importance as elected officials, assume to speak for me.  Had the Commission acted unanimously I may not have been happy, as Commissioner LaRue suggested, but I would have accepted that all of my officials reached consensus on this very critical issue.  Commissioner Spiggle’s reluctance tells me there is, perhaps, more to learn.

As far as I’m aware, the County Commission plays no formal role in the formal approval process.  The published reports I’ve seen to date only speak in terms of endorsement of, and not authorization for the Pinnacle Farm project.  Perhaps, I am ignorant of the role the Commissioners have played to this point, but my sense was that their formal endorsement was the only leverage available to bargain protection of the commitments, including the amount of revenue, the community can expect from US WindForce.  Hopefully, the Commissioners received that commitment because that bargaining chip was just played, and there’s no going back.

I have to admit I was surprised when the Keyser City Council rolled so easily and so early in the process.  They bought in early to the promise of extra cash, “jobs” and visions of tour buses driving down Main Street looking to purchase a t-shirt with a picture of Green Mountain topped with a propeller beanie.  But, I don’t live in town so I have little to say about their choices.  Plus, I don’t know if any of the units are actually within the boundaries of the city in which the members of the council live.  But that won’t stop them from selling t-shirts.

I do live in the county however, and I wonder what transpired since the online Mineral Daily News-Tribune Sunday article.  This blog actually challenged the writer’s “editorial” opening paragraph as potentially implying the Commission was hypocritical by not endorsing the project and still seeking to benefit from the funds to be derived.  But certainly a little nudge from a writer hell-bent on seeing his dream of Holland in Appalachia wouldn’t have caused the two Commissioners to suddenly endorse the project.  I’m sure they don’t mind a little criticism from the press.

So, what was it that caused the two Commissioners to jump on the wagon so quickly?

  • Did US WindForce finally agree to honor Commissioner Spiggle’s request that they sign a contract in support of their promises?
  • Did Commissioners LaRue and Pyle find some heretofore unseen performance map that moved the efficiency of the turbines to more than 15 – 30 % of nameplate capacity so we wouldn’t need to place 23 turbines on our ridges to achieve the performance of 3 to 6 units?
  • Did US Fish and Wildlife call and tell them all issues regarding bald eagles potentially flying into the turbine blades are resolved?
  • Perhaps the BWEC – (Bat and Wind Energy Cooperative), formed in 2003 by Bat Conservation International (BCI), the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy (NREL) told them that, by some miracle, the turbine models to be installed at Pinnacle in 2010 will incorporate, yet to be developed, future designs deemed necessary to protect bat populations.
  • Maybe the two Commissioners somehow determined that Pinnacle would defy all wind farm installations in the world and actually replace a coal-fired power plant, make a profit without requiring massive subsidies or dramatically increasing the cost of electricity to consumers.
  • Or, perhaps, the Commissioners just don’t care about rate increases because the power generated here won’t stay here hence, that’s a problem for some other community.
  • Just maybe they also bought into the hype that tour buses will swarm, motels will spring up and Red Lobster will move into the old Jethro’s spot on 220.

I’m sure that will all come out in their comprehensive statement of support, since there’s no additional study required.

But, while we’re clearing the deck, perhaps the Commissioners can help answer a question that’s been on my mind.  It has been suggested that New Page, a major local employer and partner in the Pinnacle project, “will be able to burnish its green-energy credentials with the wind farm” and If that helps NewPage  so they can hire one more person, or 10 or 100 … and increase sales, I feel we need to go with this … ,” (Councilman) Sowers said. “I just say it’s a win-win situation.”

This kind of discussion implies that New Page will derive benefit from the installation.  That makes perfect sense and is as it should be, even without knowing the details.  What remains foggy is the suggestion that New Page will maintain, or even hire additional workers as a direct result of the installation or, conversely that New Page will reduce the number of current employees or lose market share if the installation doesn’t move forward, as might be implied in Mr. Sowers remarks.  Did New Page ever make such claims?  Did the local news or the various citizen advisory panels ask New Page to confirm?  You see, making assumptions is one thing, but doing so from a position of influence, be it elected office or the media, requires a serious factual basis.  Perhaps Commissioner LaRue and Pyle received such confirmation from New Page and will share it with us.

Then there is the issue with project related jobs, and Lord knows we need jobs in the area.  It’s not at all my intent to minimize the “200 construction jobs, a half-dozen permanent jobs” or even the “150 construction and six permanent jobs“, depending on which of the News Tribune articles you choose to use.  The temporary jobs will certainly contribute at some level to the local economy for some period during the 9 month construction cycle outlined by Mr. David Friend of US Wind Force.  Perhaps the Commissioners have assurance that the vast majority of the “temporary” employees will be found locally.  Whether, as implied, there exists a work force waiting in the wings on the heels of the last installation at Mt. Storm or US WindForce has made arrangements to hire local folks, regardless of Union affiliation, from the local market, one could only hope.

I’ve heard there is support from various labor groups and assume the Commissioners got some assurance that the local work force would not sit idle as individuals from outside the area are brought in to make up the work force.  I also hope the half dozen full-time employees either come from the local job market or, at least, decide to live and pay taxes in WV.

Mount Storm could provide an excellent resource for study of actual utilization of local labor during a construction phase.  Perhaps the results have been published.  US WindForce must certainly have a good handle on the requirements and availability of local contribution to the effort since they are, according to their quick turn schedule, nearly mobilized and only waiting for the PSC to approve the project.  I suppose the two supporting Commissioners already have the labor issues iced as well, since there’s no need for further study.

I’m probably on shaky ground when I question if Commissioners Pyle and LaRue really assessed the impact of the timing of their unnecessary support of the Pinnacle project from their formal seats.  Providing an endorsement as an individual citizen to a project that fails to meet expectation can be dismissed with an “oh, well.”  Providing an endorsement as an elected official, effectively signaling to the PSC that the whole of the Mineral County Citizenry is on board without fully understanding all the “evidence,” is a risky game and has consequences.  For now, these elected officials have accepted the word of US WindForce that they will live up to the commitments long after US WindForce is gone from the scene.  The Commissioners, at the time of endorsement, at least as I understand, have no contractual agreement in place to insure that what was promised will be honored.  By endorsing the project prior to gaining that commitment, the Commissioners may have given away the only long term benefit to the Community – a commitment to firm tax revenue.

The consequence of the formal endorsement, should the project not live up to its commitment, may or may not create re-election difficulties.  It is possible that voters might question why, when the Commissioners were not required to do so, they chose to use the power of their office to endorse a commercial enterprise.  If, as they say, there is no reason for further study and all goes according to plan, there will be no issue.  On the other hand, should the project not live to expectations, it will be more than a disappointment that Commissioners LaRue and Pyle chose not to stand with Commissioner Spiggle as a force driving US WindForce toward insuring its financial, environmental and community commitments, prior to awarding the ultimate prize of the endorsement of the Mineral County Commission.

I really hope all goes well, because, unfortunately, there are no more cards to play.

I welcome getting hammered due to my ignorance if the issues I raised are, in fact, not issues at all.  If however, as seems to be the case, Commissioner Spiggle is not satisfied that all has surfaced that needs to be considered, I can only assume the Commissioners played their hand too soon.  Why, has now been added to my list of open questions.

Please report any broken links, errors or omissions in the comments section.

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