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Could proposed wind farms endanger Fort Drum?

Development Authority of North Country
Eight wind farms are in development near the Fort Drum military base.

Lawmakers and an advocacy group representing Fort Drum are warning about several proposed wind farm projects that are under development in the north country. They say the wind turbines could threaten operations at the military base. That's welcome news to some residents in Jefferson County, who have been fighting one of the developments since it was proposed a decade ago.

Credit Payne Horning / WRVO News
The menu at the Clayton restaurant Koffee Kove warns all of its patrons of the potential consequences that the proposed Horse Creek Wind Farm could wreak on the area.

When you enter the Koffee Kove in Clayton, one of the first things you notice is the menu. The cover does not even list the name of the restaurant. Instead, it's a full-page spread warning from River RATs, Residents Against Turbines, highlighting the potential consequences of the proposed Horse Creek Wind Farm

"River RATs is really a community effort and a legacy of more than 10 years of unified and diverse opposition to inappropriate wind development in the Thousand Islands," said Ross Holbrook, one of the grassroots organization's founding members.

Their goal is to stop the construction of 45 wind turbines that Holbrook says would forever change the future of this quaint town along the St. Lawrence River. He says it could kill the tourism industry that is key to the local economy, endanger environmental and cultural resources and disrupt the operations at the nearby Fort Drum base. And now, they have several key allies on that front.

North Country Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro) recently sent a letter to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Millea expressing concern about how Horse Creek and seven other proposed wind farms in the area could create a blind spot on fort drum's radar system.

"I was able to see the impact on the radar in terms of how it basically doesn’t allow the individual who is tracking what's happening in the air space to see accurate information of the air traffic," Stefanik said. "That’s important when we think of our training capabilities and when we think of future training needs to meet adversaries of the future."

Paul Copleman is a spokesperson for Avangrid, the company behind Horse Creek. He says their project's effects on Fort Drum are already being considered by the Defense Department - a standard, detailed review process it conducts of any wind farm project near one of their bases.

"What we have seen is there is a long track record of wind farms coexisting with military facilities, with airstrips, with radar stations, but it takes close coordination and that’s what we’re engaged in," Copleman said. "That’s what’s required of us and we can’t build without it."

But some lawmakers are not willing to take that chance. North Country Assemblywoman Addie Jenne (D-Watertown) is proposing a bill for next year's legislative session that would prohibit state tax credits for any of the wind farms that are in development near fort drum.

"I really don’t think it’s wise to have the premiere training installation in the entire Northeast United States shut its radar down when they’re doing maneuvers with their aircraft," Jenne said. 

Jenne says if the wind farm projects are dropped, the state could compensate the landowners who have already entered into lease agreements with the companies building the turbines. Similar arrangements exist with property owners around Fort Drum who agree not to develop their land.

But for Phil Scott, a property owner who entered into an agreement with Avangrid, this is about more than just money.

"What good is that [money] going to do our grandsons," Scott asked. "They’re not going to have renewable energy. When the population increases and the draw for more electricity is needed, where is it coming from? We’re kind of looking at it down the road at what’s good for the country. Basically - I mean - everybody is talking about this but if there are no places that it’s welcome, what good will it do?"

Fort Drum spokesperson Lt. Colonel Todd Polk says the base is in favor of sensible energy development, as long as it does not preclude them from being ready today and relevant tomorrow. And even if that were the case, Polk says Fort Drum will not come out against any project. Their role is to advise the defense department, which they are doing now.

Avangrid's spokesperson Paul Copleman says that decision process is still in the early stages.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.