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Fillmore County wind project seeks to have permit extended

ST. PAUL — Industrial wind projects in southeastern Minnesota have been dealt a series of setbacks in recent weeks, and another might be joining that list later this week.

The 280-megawatt EcoHarmony wind project in Fillmore County is going before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Thursday to request an extension of the project's site permit, which was issued by the PUC in 2010. Attorneys representing what would be the largest wind project in state history had asked for an administrative approval without additional review. That request was denied.

The project has received significant criticism after undergoing an intensive review process, with critics including members of the general public, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The DNR has classified the project as "high risk" in regard to environment concerns, especially its effect on bats and birds (the project is sited a few miles from Mystery Caves State Park). The project has been reduced in recent months, but turbine sites are still causing concern among wildlife officials.

The most significant blow to the project may have been delivered last week, when PUC staff filed briefing papers. Staff recommended that the commission deny the requested amendments or table the request, require an avian and bat protection plan to be created and — perhaps most importantly — initiate potential revocation proceedings "since the permittee has not commenced construction."

While making some specific criticism of this particular project, PUC staff also took a swipe at the wind industry, and the permitting process, as a whole.

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"To some degree, staff sees a benefit to all involved to initiate revocation proceedings and allow the applicant to start the process over, once full and complete information is available for review," reads a portion of the 14-page briefing paper. "What has been occurring in several wind dockets is that the information supplied in the site permit application appears complete on a cursory review. However, as the process evolves, it is found that the information provided changes and/or needs further development. At some point, staff believes it is appropriate to require the permittee to start fresh versus employing a perpetual permitting process."

The phrase "perpetual permitting process" could also be aimed at the 78-megawatt New Era wind project near Zumbrota in Goodhue County. That site permit was applied for in 2009 and remains unresolved.

The EcoHarmony project will be discussed third and fourth at Thursday's meeting in Saint Paul, which is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m.

Related Topics: FILLMORE COUNTY
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