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Community outraged over possible multidecade project near local landmark

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(The Center Square) – Whitman County residents are up in the air over a proposed wind farm that would cost approximately $300 million to build.

The Whitman County Board of Commissioners held meetings on Monday to discuss the project and hear community members’ pleas to protect their landmark. County Planner Alan Thomson said an extensive process would ensue once applications are filed.

The proposed Harvest Hills Wind Project could provide power to 90,000 homes for 25 to 30 years as part of the state’s goal of reaching 100% clean energy by 2045.

The company spearheading the controversial project wants to break ground near Kamiak Butte, a National Natural Landmark park that has more than five miles of forested hiking trails and offers a panoramic view of the Palouse region in eastern Washington near the border of Idaho.

Steelhead Americas, a Portland-based company owned by Vestas American Wind Technology, has yet to file applications for its proposed wind farm. However, Thomson said that once it has, the county will issue a public notice to local media and begin a scoping process.

An opposition group involving hundreds of residents has responded to the proposal. Around 1,600 people have joined the private Facebook group, and the same number have signed a petition against the project.

Gwen Anderson, a resident and author of the petition, alleged that landowners around Kamiak Butte have already begun signing leases with Steelhead Americas for the project. She estimated the 45 wind turbines to stand around 670 feet tall, higher than the ridgeline.

“Prime Palouse soil will be removed and paved over for access roads, transmission lines will be built, and tons of concrete and steel will be placed deep into the Palouse soil for each turbine,” Anderson said in the petition, “which are known to leak oil, cause fires, and kill wildlife, and will destroy the enjoyment of our natural recreational sites and neighboring residential properties.

Local farmer Greg Jones spoke in favor of the project during Monday’s meeting and said he’s among the few who have already signed lease agreements.

“I like government services,” Jones said, “and I would prefer somebody else pay for them other than me.”

Jones tossed aside the argument that turbines would ruin the view of Kamiak Butte. He cited a television tower near the landmark that Washington State University installed years ago. While the project was a big deal when proposed, no one mentions it now, and the view is fine, he said.

Pullman resident Tom Thompson said the whole ordeal is somewhat shady.

“Leases have been signed, all these dollars dangled in front of farmers,” Thompson said. “The general public is oblivious to this.”

He questions whether the community understands the magnitude of the project’s impact. Thompson said he wants Vestas to address the community upfront rather than make moves behind the scenes.

“When they recover it, it’s probably going to be concrete, gravel and clay. That precious topsoil,” Thompson said, “that ain’t going to be going back in place. If I was a betting man, I’d bet money on that.”