LOCKPORT — A retired Air Force colonel now working on behalf of Apex Clean Energy has tried to convince supporters of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station that the company's planned wind turbine development won't interfere with air base operations.
But the president of the Niagara Military Affairs Council said last week that wasn't fully reassured, and opponents of the Lighthouse Wind project in Somerset and Yates weren't buying the message, either.
H. David Belote, who was the first director of the Pentagon office that approves or rejects wind and solar projects around military bases, said his former colleagues aren't concerned about the project.
In a March 16 letter to Apex development manager Taylor Quarles, Steven J. Sample, chief of the mission evaluation branch of the Department of Defense Siting Clearinghouse, said the Apex project "is unlikely to impact military testing and/or training operations in the area."
Military Affairs Council President John A. Cooper Sr. said, "They showed us some stuff that indicated they're doing their due diligence. I don't think they had anything definitive."
"In no way, shape or form will this project encroach on C-130 operations," Belote, former commander of the nation's largest fighter plane base, said in an interview with The Buffalo News on Friday. He said the same can be said of drone missions, which are scheduled to be part of operations in Niagara Falls soon. He added, "The United States Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense are not worried about these turbines ever causing any trouble with any operations."
After he left the Pentagon, Belote worked two years as an Apex vice president before joining Cassidy & Associates, a Washington lobbying firm which he said specializes in environmental and energy projects and in helping communities resist threatened base closures.
With solid public opposition to the project shown in surveys of property owners in Somerset and Yates, both towns are doing whatever they can to stop Apex from constructing turbines.
The air base, Niagara County's largest employer, has twice been targeted by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, but was saved both times by political lobbying.
"The stakes are awfully high," said Somerset Supervisor Daniel M. Engert, who heard Belote's pitch at a meeting Thursday night in Barker. No formal review can occur until the exact turbine locations and heights are released, he said.
Sample's letters "reflect an informal review, only a limited review," Engert said of the letter from the Defense Department official. "Neither an informal nor formal review would ever answer the most pressing question facing Niagara County and our region, which is whether Lighthouse Wind would impact the (air base) encroachment score in future BRAC proceedings."
Belote acknowledged that the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, has radars in Dansville, Livingston County, some 60 miles from the Apex site, and NORAD hasn't signed off on the plan yet. He said NORAD won't do so until the Federal Aviation Administration, which must approve the location of all structures more than 200 feet tall, also agrees.
That can't happen until Apex files its detailed plan with the state Public Service Commission. Quarles said that won't happen until late summer or early fall, two or three months later than previously expected, because the company is still working on stipulations to guide the state siting board's deliberations over the project.
He said that the height of the turbines may be between 495 and 550 feet and that the maximum number of turbines is 70. "It could be in the high 50s," Quarles said. Belote said construction would occur "in 2018 at the very earliest, probably 2019."
Quarles said a publicly available map of training flight patterns for the base shows none of them come closer than 3.8 miles to the wind project area. Belote said that there is a corner of a Lake Ontario flight area that overlaps the wind project but that planes flying over the lake are supposed to remain above 4,000 feet.