Seven months after learning a contentious wind project at Ostrander Point had been halted by the Environmental Review Tribunal, an Ontario divisional court overturned that decision Thursday, paving the way for development to begin later this year.
In July 2013, the Tribunal agreed with the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists that if development of a nine turbine, 22.5 megawatt project from wind proponent Gilead Power was allowed to proceed that local Blanding’s Turtles – a provincially threatened species – would suffer irreparable harm from vehicle traffic on access roads leading to the turbines.
But Justice Ian Nordheimer ruled Thursday the Tribunal’s concern over projected impacts on the Blanding’s Turtle were unfounded, given the ERT had no clear picture – “complete absence of evidence” was the term he used – on Blanding’s Turtle populations across Ontario, let alone on Ostrander Point.
Moreover, the Court argued in the 40-page ruling the Tribunal was “plainly wrong” in claiming they lacked the authority to overrule a decision of the Ministry of Natural Resources regarding public and private use the access roads that may have increased turtle mortality.
From the ruling:
One might think … that the Tribunal would have concluded that the appropriate remedy was one that focused on eliminating the increased risk. One obvious way of doing that would be to prohibit public access to the roads. Such a prohibition would avoid all of the debate over whether mitigation measures such as speed bumps, signage and the like would be affective. However, that is not the route that the Tribunal chose to take.
Rather than consider various ways to mitigate the damage done to local turtle populations – whatever they may be – the Tribunal simply shut the project down, a decision the Court was unwilling to accept.
In all, the Court identified six crucial errors in judgement occurred in the Tribunal’s verdict, suggesting they determined the fate of the project without necessary evidence and without allowing Gilead sufficient opportunity to refute the turtle mortality claim linked to high volumes of road traffic.
Michael Lord, President of Gilead Power, told reporters Friday he is “very pleased with the outcome” and is hopeful some of the groups opposing the project will take part in a community liaison committee Gilead has formed to address local concerns over the project’s impact on local wildlife populations.
A spokeswoman for Save Ostrander Point, Cheryl Anderson, said Friday her organization is “disappointed” with the ruling. Opponents of the project have 15 days to determine whether they want – or can afford – to appeal the ruling.
The group has been effective fundraisers to date, collecting almost $135,000 to fight the case. But legal fees mount quickly and a lengthy appeal may tax the financial and emotional energy of a group that has been fighting the wind project since it was first approved by the Ministry of the Environment in late December 2012.
Tory MPP Todd Smith, who represents Prince Edward County, said Friday the Ostrander Point battle has been a “huge issue” in his riding where local residents feel the government is “stepping on their neck” to allow wind development to proceed.
“Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals have put environment justice and the whole environmental review process up for bidding,” he told reporters Friday. “You could almost say they are selling rural Ontario to the highest bidder.”
Gilead hopes to start construction in October (their Endangered Species Act permit won’t allow construction to take place between May and October) and supply power to the provincial electricity grid by May 2015.