By David Johnston
Faced with overwhelming community opposition, it appears that FreedomWorks LLC will abandon its most recent attempt to build a pumped storage hydroelectric generating plant in the West Virginia highlands. At a public meeting in Petersburg on March 9, FreedomWorks principal Tim Williamson acknowledged a straw poll indicating that few, if any, landowners would sell or lease their property for the project, and agreed to withdraw the project’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) permit application.
The Ulysses Pumped Storage Hydro (PSH) project was proposed to be located in Grant County. The plans would have created two reservoirs of 1100 to 1300 acres each. One would have been located near Bismarck and Mt. Storm on the Allegheny Front, and the other in the valley of the North Fork of Patterson Creek, near Greenland Gap. The reservoirs would have been connected by seven-mile long underground penstocks. Water would flow from the upper to the lower reservoir through an electric generating station located near Scherr during times of peak demand, and be pumped back to the upper reservoir during off-peak hours.
FreedomWorks had previously pursued a Pumped Storage Hydro project on Backbone Mountain between Thomas and Parsons in Tucker County. That project would have directly affected public lands and wetlands, fisheries, and endangered species habitats. It failed to gain a permit from the Forest Service to even proceed to a feasibility study. The Ulysses project would have been located entirely on private land and would not directly affect national forest or other public lands, and thus would not require a Forest Service permit.
FreedomWorks applied for a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) preliminary permit to conduct feasibility studies in October 2019. A comment period ran from November to January. Comments were submitted by the US Department of the Interior, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Section, and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (WVHC). WVHC also filed a motion requesting Intervenor status in the project.
Most of the comments were critical of the project’s potential impact on fisheries and other water resources, unique habitats for birds and other species, and of omissions, flaws and inconsistencies in the published plans. Nevertheless, FERC issued a permit for the preliminary study in February. While acknowledging the concerns expressed by the commenters, FERC noted that FreedomWorks would be obligated to consult with relevant agencies and interested parties, and include studies addressing the issues raised before applying for a permit for construction.
The upper reservoir would have been built in the watershed of Mill Run, a tributary of the Stoney River. The initial plans showed the reservoir covering most of the few residences in the area and a church. This area contains reclaimed mines with the possibility of open underground tunnels. Issues of concern included the potential for release of mine waste chemicals, water seepage outside the dam containment, and catastrophic collapse of underlying voids. The reservoir would have covered large areas of grassland and savannah habitat for numerous bird species, including the American Bald Eagle, and potentially compromise caves that are home to several bat species, including endangered ones. The reservoir would presumably have fully dewatered Mill Run, a recognized trout fishery. The plans included no provision for managing water flowing off slopes above the enclosed reservoir, which would normally flow into Mill Run.
The lower reservoir would have flooded the valley of the North Fork of Patterson Creek just below Greenland Gap and Falls Gap, an area of active farms owned by families with multi-generational ties to the area, and with significant scenic and historical value.
The initially-published plans contained a number of inconsistencies. It was ambiguous whether the two reservoirs would form a true closed-loop system, as claimed. The published maps could be interpreted to include inflow and outflow from existing waterways, or to cut them off, without provisions for handling existing water flows.
The “footprint” of the reservoir was drawn in a way that did not follow the land contours of the stated water level. At the upstream end, where the North Fork flows out of Falls Gap, a dam was shown, but it was unclear if it would dam the North Fork. If it were not dammed, the lower reservoir would have to extend up into Falls Gap, inundating a popular waterfall. Yet if the North Fork were dammed at that point, there was no provision for what to do with the continued flow of the North Fork, a significant stream at that point. On the downstream side no outlet was provided, so the North Fork would have been rendered permanently dry. By cutting off the North Fork in the middle, the reservoir would have impacted both upstream and downstream fisheries and riparian habitat, yet no provision for a fisheries study was included in the permit application.
Later drawings revised the plans, but introduced new inconsistencies. The upper reservoir was reconfigured to avoid the church and most residences, but had to be enlarged and made deeper, with the consequent need for more enclosing dams and greater pressure on the underlying ground. The lower reservoir was moved further down the valley, onto the property of a new set of landowners. The dam at the upstream end of the reservoir was moved to clearly cut off the North Fork downstream of Falls Gap, forming a new, smaller reservoir. The flow of the North Fork would be diverted into a box culvert running about a mile under a hill and into a small tributary of the Middle Fork of Patterson Creek. A new recreation area was shown next to smaller reservoir. Yet at the water level indicated for the reservoir, the park would have been fully underwater!
Although the Grant County Commission indicated support for the project based on the potential economic benefits, the Commission also indicated that eminent domain would not be considered; the project would need to proceed with the cooperation of the affected landowners. FreedomWorks concurred with this sentiment, and promised to find ways to adapt the project to the needs and concerns of the landowners. However, it became clear in a series of meetings among landowners that there was widespread and vehement opposition to the project.
This culminated in a public meeting sponsored by the Grant County Development Authority. The Grant County courthouse hearing was packed with residents, with no standing room left. Tim Williamson of FreedomWorks outlined the project plans and benefits, and reiterated that the project was in a preliminary study stage, and that adaptations could be made to make the project palatable to the landowners. However, several speakers representing the landowners recounted the potential environmental, hydrological, and geotechnical impacts, as well as the destruction of their farms, cemeteries and historical family touchstones. A straw poll was called of those who would never consider selling or leasing their land to the project under any circumstances. Nearly every hand in the room went up. Williamson acknowledged that the project could not proceed in the face of such overwhelming opposition. He later indicated that he would withdraw the FERC application the next day.
On March 16 FreedomWorks sent a letter to FERC surrendering its preliminary permit. WVHC will continue to monitor and closely examine any future proposals for a pumped storage hydroelectric project.
Pumped storage hydro is not necessarily undesirable from an environmental standpoint, as it has the potential to replace fossil fuel-generated peak demand electricity with energy generated by renewables. But with their need for large reservoirs, such projects unavoidably will have significant impacts on environmental, scenic, and recreational values, and on the people with ties to the affected land. Finding a location where these impacts can be minimized to the point that they do not overwhelm the potential benefits will remain an exceedingly difficult challenge for such projects.