Story by Bill Kovarik
The two-lane road to Tazewell, Va. fades to gray like a pair of blue jeans in an old photo. It winds past small but prosperous homes, along pastures rimmed with split rail fences, and through some of the most beautiful mountains in Appalachia.
Once it simply connected this quiet town to the nearby coalfields and the outside world.
“We feel our mountains are beautiful and should be protected.”
— Frazier Miller Miller
Today, the road to Tazewell leads to a crossroads of a contentious energy and environmental debate.
Earlier this year, Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Power and British Petroleum (BP) announced the purchase of 2,500 acres of mountain and proposed the Bluestone Wind Project – a 60 megawatt, 30 windmill development along the ridgeline of nearby East River Mountain, a ridgeline that runs south of Bluefield and Tazewell, Va.
Dominion is one of the nation’s largest electrical utilities, running hundreds of nuclear, coal, and gas generating facilities. BP is one of the world’s largest oil companies. The two energy giants have partnered on several other wind facilities in other states, but the Tazewell project is the first in Virginia.
In a series of public hearings this winter and spring, Tazewell residents have expressed support, outrage and every possible position in between.
Some, like Alex Payne, believe that wind power can create jobs for the region. “Everybody says they’d like to see more economic development so their sons and daughters don’t have to leave the county,” he said. “We need to start with green energy.”
Others, like Mark Tyson, believe wind power itself is an outright scam. “The only thing green about wind energy is the money that’s coming from the government to build these wind farms,” he said.
Other opponents like Ann M. Robinson, have a more nuanced position. “I am not against wind energy — I just don’t see how this project will benefit anyone but BP [or] Dominion,” she said. Since they have made no promises to stop coal use, she believes the project “will not stop or even reduce one single ounce of CO2 or prevent mountaintop removal.”
The wind project is one of two planned by BP and Dominion for Virginia. The other will be located in Wise County.
One Wise County resident saw the wind project in a different light. “Over 20 percent [of Wise County] has been strip mined,” said Henry Oppenheimer. “We live in ground zero for coal production in the U.S. Our county is sick, our streams are dead and our people are suffering. Our water supply is being poisoned every day. We desperately need renewable energy to replace coal production because it is destroying our way of life… Wind is the most environmentally friendly option we have today.”
“Everybody says they’d like to see more economic development … We need
to start with green energy.”
— Alex Payne
At the heart of the political process for BP and Dominion is the question of how a county will regulate zoning rules, especially property line setbacks. Although Tazewell doesn’t have a zoning ordinance, it is considering a safety ordinance that would ensure windmills were set back three times their height from a property line or residence.
Property lines typically run along ridgelines, where there are no buildings or people living, so the very large setbacks from property lines are not necessarily safety oriented. The effect of requiring a 1,200 foot setback from a property line, without the possibility of permission from the landlord, would be to make the wind farm impossible, BP wind developer Jim Madden said.
In a planning commission hearing in May, many people in the audience seemed to believe that wind turbines require more energy than they produce. When Madden insisted that wind turbines were net energy positive, several dozen people in the crowd groaned, saying “that’s not true.”
In the same planning commission hearing, Madden was asked about wind power subsidies. “Every source of energy receives a federal subsidy–wind energy is not an exception,” Madden said. “It receives two cents per kilowatt hour for 10 years. But, the subsidies received by wind energy and all renewable energy industries are miniscule compared to the subsidies that are provided for other energy sources.”
The reaction from the crowd was loud moaning and shouts of “you’re wrong” and “that’s not true.” In response, the chairman pounded the gavel and shouted: “Please be quiet in the audience.”
“Many of us believe that the only real future for us economically is the tourist industry,” said Tazewell resident Teresa Paine. “When I first heard about this project I was heartsick. It’s not just a matter of losing the value in my property that I have poured so much of my time and financial resources into. I also love East River Mountain in a way that I can only describe to you as spiritual.”
“Wind power is being forced on the American people without regard to the negative fallout of wind turbines,” said Bluefield resident Frazier Miller. “We feel our mountains are beautiful and should be protected.”