A proposed wind farm in Highland County pitted environmentalist against environmentalist. Backers of alternative, nonpolluting energy stood off against wildlife defenders.
It's easy to sympathize with cute creatures, but there is insufficient evidence of a pending critter Armageddon to justify blocking the project.
Wind power is one of the more promising alternative energy sources that might ease America's reliance on fossil fuels. It emits no global warming gases, and wind is an abundant resource in many parts of the nation, including the Alleghany Highlands.
The problem is that birds and bats tend to fly into the blades of wind turbines.
So when Highland New Wind Development LLC proposed 19 wind turbines on a ridge line near the West Virginia border, neighbors and others rallied in opposition. Endangered and threatened species such as the Indiana bat, gray bat, Virginia big-eared bat, bald eagle and golden eagle all could meet their ends in the spinning blades.
Wind farm backers countered with their own evidence, arguing it wouldn't be that bad.
A State Corporation Commission hearings officer had the unenviable task of wading into that dispute. After receiving data and testimony from both sides, he recommended SCC approval, but with tight, smart conditions.
No one can say for sure how many birds and bats of what species the turbines would kill. Both sides concede that they can only speculate and that more studies would not clarify the situation. Maybe a lot of flying animals will die, maybe not.
A maybe isn't enough to ban a project with potential economic benefits for the county and environmental benefits for the nation. It's also not enough to rush forward.
The hearings officer therefore crafted a go-slow decision that should satisfy all sides.
He recommends the state allow the company to erect its wind turbines. If dead birds or bats start piling up, the state would enforce mitigating measures such as shutting down the turbines during the deadliest times.
The company and the State Department of Game and Inland Fisheries would work out the exact monitoring and mitigation details before the blades start spinning. Inspections would last a minimum of three years, and state officials would continue to have access beyond that. The company would pay for everything up to $150,000 per year.
In other words, the risk is on the owners. They believe they can turn a profit without killing unacceptable numbers of birds and bats. It would be a good thing if they can. The more wind power put into the grid the better.
If they cannot, they will lose money. The state will not and should not tolerate killing endangered species or mass killing of healthy ones. The county, also, will be prepared. The wind farm must submit a bond to Highland County to cover tower removal if things go badly.
Now it's up to the SCC, which can approve the recommendation, reject it or alter it.
It deserves approval so long as the safeguards remain in place.