Sierra Club supports wind farm in Virginia

By a 4-2 vote Wednesday, the executive committee of the Sierra Club’s Roanoke chapter voted to conditionally endorse a plan to build up to 18 wind turbines on Roanoke County’s tallest mountain.

Shortly afterward, Vice Chairwoman Holly Hartman resigned in protest, complaining that the group’s leadership stifled dissenting opinions during four months of deliberation.

It was the latest sign of internal strife as the Sierra Club deals with an environmentalist’s conundrum: Wind farms are seen as a vital source of nonpolluting energy, yet their placement on ridgelines can threaten the natural resources the club seeks to protect.

Club officers who voted for a resolution supporting the wind farm said it came with key conditions, including approval by regulatory bodies and requirements that the project will not kill endangered wildlife or pollute the waters of nearby Bottom Creek with mud and silt.

"These conditions identify our main concerns, and we think the developer can address them if proper measures are taken," said Bill Modica, chairman of the local chapter.

While acknowledging some environmental concerns, the club said that the giant wind turbines will reduce carbon emissions by 98,000 tons a year, replacing some of the electricity produced by coal-fired power plants. The wind farm is expected to produce enough electricity to power about 10,000 homes.

Dan Crawford, a member of the executive committee who voted to support the wind farm, said opposing views were taken into consideration.

"We bent over backwards, and while there may have been times when the feelings were less than cordial, the opposition definitely had a voice with the executive committee," Crawford said.

The club — which has a national policy of supporting wind farms in appropriate locations — is the latest of about a half-dozen local and state organizations to back the wind farm proposed by Invenergy Inc. of Chicago. Sierra Club says it is the oldest and largest U.S. grass-roots environmental organization.

Invenergy is awaiting word from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is evaluating the impact the wind turbines might have on airplanes approaching and departing the Roanoke Regional Airport. If the FAA approves the project, Invenergy will then seek a special use permit from the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors.

State approval from the Department of Environmental Quality is also required.

In recent months, friends and foes of the wind turbines have been gathering huge amounts of often conflicting data to support their arguments. The debate has turned personal at times, with Hartman taking issue with the way Modica has moderated discussions at Sierra Club meetings.

By Laurence Hammack, The Roanoke Times,