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Judge rules against Bureau County wind farm developers

Walnut Ridge project must clear environmental hurdles

Published: Wednesday, May 13, 2015 7:52 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, May 14, 2015 9:51 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO – A federal judge has ruled in favor of a group of landowners who had sued the developers of a proposed wind farm in Bureau County.

The 123-turbine Walnut Ridge Wind Farm had been planned in northern Bureau County as a joint venture between Minnesota-based Geronimo Wind Energy LLC and a California Indian tribe.

The project, incorporated as MG2 Tribal Energy LLC, found a customer for most of its wind energy in October, when it was awarded a 10-year contract from the federal government. The deal with the U.S. General Services Administration was the largest wind energy purchase from a single source in federal contracting history.

The project, however, has again changed hands since the filing of the lawsuit in January. In April, Geronimo sold it to Warren Buffett-owned Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the judge’s ruling applies to any company that owns the Walnut Ridge LLC.

“MG2 still exists, and Walnut Ridge LLC is one of the defendants,” said Rick Porter of Hinshaw & Culbertson, a national law firm with headquarters in Chicago. “This is enforceable against all of the parties sued.”

Lee County landowner Larry Gerdes, who is a leader of the Informed Farmers Coalition, said lawsuits of this type must be drawn up to account for constant ownership changes within the wind power industry.

“The federal tax credits are so rich that the companies start projects, collect subsidies, and flip them to someone else,” Gerdes said. “Midwest Wind Energy flipped it, and now Geronimo sold it to BHE.”

Geronimo actually retained the rights to Walnut Ridge as part of its spring 2013 acquisition of Midwest Wind Energy.

When the Walnut Ridge government contract was awarded, the agency said the MG2 deal kept the federal government on track to meet the Obama administration’s goal for federal agencies to obtain 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

The federal lawsuit was filed in January by more than 2 dozen property owners near the 14,000-acre site. The suit argued that the government’s role in the project requires the agency to conduct a review of its environmental impact on the surrounding farmland and ecosystems.

The plaintiffs cited several detrimental consequences they believed they would face from the wind farm. Included were the noise from the 500-foot-tall turbines, the destruction of scenic views, impact on deer and bird populations, and interference with area farming operations.

Geronimo and its partners countered in a motion to dismiss the suit that the government agency’s contract didn’t amount to a “major federal action” subject to environmental review, because the contract didn’t give the agency outright control over the project.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm of the Central District Court in Peoria ruled that the wind farm’s contract with the government agency wasn’t exempt from a federal review of environmental impacts.

Although the extent of the developer’s obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act are not yet known, the project could be delayed for years.

“It could take a very long time to do environmental impact work, because they have to do it for the environment and the people involved,” Porter said. “We know the court will have them comply with an environmental assessment or an impact statement.”

Given the circumstances, Gerdes questions why the county would want to continue to pursue the project for which the permitting has already expired twice. It last expired in December 2014.

“This study could take 2 or 3 years; it’s already been 7 years, and no turbines have been built,” Gerdes said. “Why would Bureau County want to wait that long for a project that may never happen?”

The ruling didn’t go entirely in the landowners’ favor. The judge denied their bid for a temporary restraining order halting any work on the project, but only based on the defendant’s agreement to give 60 days’ notice before beginning construction.

The judge added that the plaintiffs could renew their bid for a restraining order at any time.

Geronimo still owns Green River project

DIXON – While there is a new owner for the Walnut Ridge Wind Farm project, Geronimo Wind Energy still has control of the Green River project planned in Lee and Whiteside counties.

In late 2013, Geronimo bought the Green River project from Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power. At the time, Geronimo had cited its proximity to the Bureau County project as a big plus for the acquisition. Mainstream typically sells wind energy projects before the construction phase begins.

The recent ruling for the plaintiffs in the Walnut Ridge lawsuit creates even more uncertainly for that project with new owner Berkshire Hathaway Energy faced with additional environmental responsibilities.

A spokesman for Geronimo confirmed Wednesday that the company is moving ahead with plans for Green River.

"Geronimo is actively developing the Green River project, and we are working for construction to begin in spring 2016, and the project to be completed by the end of 2016," said Tom Swierczewski, Green River project manager.

The scope of the project has changed, however, since Geronimo has assumed ownership. The project once included parts of Lee, Whiteside, and Bureau counties.

"With the acquisition by Geronimo, most of Green River will be located in Lee County, with some in Whiteside," Swierczewski said. "The Bureau County part was absorbed into the Walnut Ridge project."

Swierczewski said Green River doesn't have a contract in place with a buyer of its power, but the company is actively marketing the project to several interested parties.

While the company said Green River is a go, economic development officials in both counties said they haven't detected much action.

"There have been court challenges since July 2013, and activity has slowed down ever since," Lee County Zoning Officer Chris Henkel said.

A lawsuit had been filed by 60 residents against Lee County and Mainstream. The suit cited incompatibility with surrounding land uses, decreased property values, and noise and shadow flicker among the concerns.

Henkel said he hasn't heard from the company since it took over the project.

"Nothing has been issued, and they would have to go through the permitting process," Henkel said. "They haven't contacted our office yet about doing that."

Economic development directors in Lee and Whiteside counties said they were unsure of what was happening with the project.

"I really haven't heard anything about the Green River project in quite some time," said John Thompson, president of the Lee County Industrial Development Association.

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