Proposed TVA windfarm meets opposition
   Opponents say environmental impact outweighs economic benefits
  
By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   When you have 33 metric tons of bomb-grade uranium coming to Erwin to be blended into fuel to power Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear reactors, 14 windmills spaced out along the ridgeline of Stone Mountain in Mountain City doesn't sound like a bad deal.
   But opponents say the windmills -- the equivalent of a 2-mile-long building 36 stories high -- spaced across the very top of the mountain, along with an energy storage facility and transmission lines, will mar the relatively undisturbed landscape.
   According to TVA, which has proposed the project, the towers would be confined to a 60 foot by 60 foot screened-in area. Opponents, however, say research has shown that approximately an acre of land would be needed for each tower.
   The windfarm would supply less than 1 percent of TVA's total power grid at a total estimated cost of $55 million, but would give ratepayers a choice of purchasing 150 kilowatt hours per month of renewable energy, or about 4 percent of average monthly use.
   According to TVA, the project would generate up to 62 million kilowatt hours of clean energy annually, enough to supply 3,400 households in the Tennessee Valley. The windmills would be visible from portions of Elizabethton, Southwest Virginia, Boone and Banner Elk, N.C.
   The wind-generating project is part of TVA's Green Power Switch, a renewable energy initiative that offers consumers a choice in the type of electric power generated. The energy storage facility, called Regenesys, stores electricity during off-peak periods and retrieves it during times of peak power demand.
   Stone Mountain is one of two areas being considered for the windfarm. The other is near TVA's existing Buffalo Mountain windfarm in Anderson County, a former strip mine.
   TVA will host a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the second-floor courtroom of the Johnson County Courthouse to discuss a draft environmental assessment regarding the wind farm and energy storage plant proposed for Stone Mountain. The draft assessment is available at TVA's Web site at http://www.tva.gov/environment/reports/index.htm.
   According to the environmental assessment, the average elevation of Stone Mountain is 4,400 feet, while the highest point in the area of the proposed windfarm is 4,560 feet. The scenic mountain has an undisturbed appearance that can be seen by area motorists up to four miles away, and at present, a narrow powerline clearing is the only visible alteration and is hardly noticeable.
   Economically, construction employment for the windfarm, substation, access road, and transmission line would be small and temporary, according to TVA, with no significant impact on the local economy or employment.
   TVA in-lieu-of-tax payments to the state of Tennessee and to Johnson County would increase only slightly. The state would receive an increase of about $67,000 in payments while only $550 of that amount would be redistributed by the state to Johnson County. If TVA enters into a Power Purchase Agreement with a windfarm developer, there would be no TVA in-lieu-of tax-payments. Instead, the windfarm developer would pay local property taxes.
   The Regenesys facility would add $125,000 to state coffers in the form of in-lieu-of-tax payments. Of that amount, Johnson County would receive only $1,100 from the state if TVA owns the windfarm and about $500 if TVA does not own the windfarm. As in the previous case, the developer would pay local property taxes.
   In contrast, opponents say at least one landowner already has been given a draft contract and stands to make $65,000 a year for 99 years from TVA by leasing land for the proposed site.
   Stone Mountain is home to several species of birds, including the red-tailed hawk, Cooper's hawk and peregrine falcon. TVA estimates 48 to 120 birds would die annually as a result of construction of the wind turbines and an additional six to 15 birds would die from collisions with a meteorological tower supported by guy wires. The number of migrating songbirds present in the fall could result in more deaths.
   Aircraft warning lights would be required on the turbines, which would be substantially out of scale with the surrounding landscape, extending at least 250 feet above tree lines. Flashing strobe lights on the turbines would provide a pulsating disruptive contrast along the ridge and substantially reduce visual tranquility of the night sky, TVA says. Opponents say each of the blades would have lights and at night "it would look like 14 Ferris wheels on the mountain."
   Substation lighting for nighttime security would further increase brightness on the ridge at night. The line of turbines "would significantly reduce the overall scenic attractiveness, tranquility and harmony of the rural setting, which would adversely change the aesthetic sense of the place," the environmental assessment states. The lights also can attract migrating birds at night, resulting in higher mortality levels.
   Construction of the windfarm also is expected to impact Weller's salamanders, which are considered "critically imperiled" in Tennessee and vulnerable to extinction globally. Loss of the Stone Mountain population would have a "measurable cumulative impact on the salamander," the report states.
   The project would include construction of a transmission line at least 3-1/2 miles long which likely would follow the route of an existing line, however, the cleared right-of-way would be widened and new, larger structures could be built, resulting in further adverse contrast to the landscape.
   Roger Ramsey of Mountain City is one of the locals heading up opposition to the windfarm. Ramsey said the environmental assessment states that TVA would have to clear and grade a one-acre site per turbine.
   "If they do that, that mountain will never come back. Whereas in Anderson County, the site is on an old abandoned strip coal mine. They wouldn't have to tear anything up to put those down there. I just want to do everything I can to show them that they really should put them down there, not up here," Ramsey said.
   "There are people in this county who say they are for the windmills. There's one fellow in particular who is a member of the Sierra Club who says it's ecological. I'm all for ecology. I'm an ecologist, too; but my ecology goes to the top of that mountain. If they were proposing to put those on farmland down here, they wouldn't have to cut any trees down and I wouldn't think twice about it. But up on that mountain, that, to me, is not the right place. They will be visible all along the Appalachian Trail which runs up along Iron Mountain and Holston Mountain," he said.
   One issue not covered by the Environmental Assessment "is when it gets cold and there is snow and ice, big chunks of ice fly off of those propellers when they're turning. I wouldn't want to be anywhere near when a 10-pound chunk of ice comes flying through the air at me," Ramsey said.
   From an archaeological perspective, according to the assessment, Buffalo Mountain has been severely disturbed by strip mining and extensive timber removal. A few small unmined areas could contain intact archaeological remains. Historic maps of Stone Mountain show grassy balds and meadows.
   "In Cherokee mythology, such balds were the residences of certain spirits in the Cherokee pantheon. If these areas were cleared historically for livestock pasture, they represent a rare form of historic agricultural landscape, i.e., mountaintop summer pasture," TVA says. If the agency pursues the Stone Mountain site, an archaeological survey would have to be conducted.
   Historical significance also is addressed in the assessment. "The only historical significance down in Anderson County is something like eight miles away where there was an airbase for the protection of Oak Ridge during World War II. But they're saying Stone Mountain is historically significant. ... Daniel Boone came across Stone Mountain. He did not come down the creek from Trade to Mountain City."
   Ramsey grew up in Johnson County. "I was a Boy Scout and Eagle Scout. I've been on the top of every mountain in Johnson County and I just do not want to see one of them torn up. They've already torn up Forge Mountain just east of Mountain City. A developer built a road to the top of it and then he has some roads coming down from the top on the side and those stick out like a sore thumb. I don't want to see that done to any other mountain.
   "There is a Frasier fir that grows on the mountain that is on the endangered list. So as I read this, I was thinking, if TVA would only read their own environmental assessment, I know where they would put it," Ramsey said.
   "Mountain City is called Mountain City for a dad-gummed good reason: We've got some beautiful mountains up here."