A three-year battle over a proposed windmill project near Fort Indiantown Gap rages on.

Fort Indiantown Gap officials have said that approval of a proposed 80-turbine, 175-megawatt wind farm will severely hamper the Gap’s ability to conduct training exercises, risks the safety of their personnel and could potentially lead to the federal government closing the base and moving training operations elsewhere.

A Doral Renewables LLC official, however, says no jobs will be lost if their wind farm plan is granted by the Department of Defense, the agency that rules on renewable energy projects located in proximity to military installations. Doral is the project developer and has been working with Schuylkill County-based Rausch Creek Land L.P., which owns the land where the proposed wind farm would reside in Hegins, Porter and Frailey townships.

Nick Cohen, president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Doral Renewables, said studies show that installation of the proposed $300-million project will not negatively impact the Gap’s ability to train service personnel since the wind turbines would be located 15 miles from the Gap’s base on coal-rich land known as Anthracite Ridge in Schuylkill County.

“We hired military experts who are very familiar, intimately familiar, with the operations at Fort Indiantown Gap and also with the clearing house rules,” said Cohen.

Cohen noted in a telephone interview with LebTown that over half of the expected $300 million price tag is earmarked for local vendors, which could potentially include Lebanon County businesses, to complete work associated with the two-year installation project.

“Half of it (the $300 million) goes to local employment and probably $50 million to local vendors for services like everything from delivery trucks to excavation to fencing,” said Cohen. “When completed, there will be a dozen full-time jobs and 250 construction jobs for the region over a two-year period during installation of the turbines.”

When asked for comment on a project that could potentially bring millions of dollars to the local economy, Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce president & CEO Karen Groh said she did not have enough information about this issue to discuss it.

“I will say that we have a great working relationship with both Fort Indiantown Gap officials and local business owners,” added Groh.

Although LebTown requested a telephone interview with officials at Fort Indiantown Gap to discuss their concerns about this project, Brad Rhen, deputy state public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania National Guard (PANG), asked that questions be submitted via email. After questions had been submitted, Rhen asked in a follow-up email if it would be “good to email the answers and then follow up with a phone call.”

However, when two answers to seven preliminary questions were emailed to LebTown, the email ends with Rhen writing that “we feel it is in everyone’s best interest not to comment any further until that (decision-making) process has been completed.”

One question answered by PANG officials regards a 2011 federal law that requires Department of Defense installations, developers and other affected parties to evaluate and attempt to mitigate any safety concerns or other risks associated with proposed renewable energy projects.

Rhen wrote: “The Pennsylvania National Guard complies with all laws, regulations and processes in order to complete our State and Federal missions while meeting pilot safety requirements and being environmental stewards. The Pennsylvania National Guard is actively participating in the process to address issues related to aviation and compatible use.”

Cohen said his company has worked to address safety concerns and other issues posed by Gap officials.

“We’ve found mitigations to their concerns,” said Cohen, including one that would lower the total number of turbines from 80 to 40. “There are ways that we can all work together to mitigate every single one of their concerns so that their mission would continue unimpaired and that they would still be able to train just as many people under the same benefits that they get now when flying around the area.”

The Gap has stated in published reports that the project would cause safety concerns for helicopter pilots and jeopardizes the future of the aviation training program at the home of the Pennsylvania National Guard and the Air National Guard’s 193 Special Operations Wing.

In an Oct.16, 2021, letter to the Hegins Township Zoning Board, PANG lawyers and the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs objected to the project’s potential economic impact on the base, adding that “the army will not hesitate to move (its training sites) Eastern Aviation Training Sites if PANG cannot satisfy the Army’s mission and training requirements,” according to an article published by Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

When asked if he would walk away from this project as developer if FTIG were to lose jobs, Cohen replied: “Absolutely – if it is shown that the project would close the Gap. I will not be responsible for one job to be lost at Fort Indiantown Gap. I would not be advocating for this or pushing for this and have $10 million invested in this if I thought any jobs were going to be affected. The due diligence that we did and the research involved is how I know that not one job will be risked.”

The total number of federal employees at Fort Indiantown Gap and the VA Hospital in Lebanon statistically make them Lebanon County’s top employer. (The Pennsylvania State Department of Labor and Industry aggregates employment for federal positions for each of the commonwealth’s 67 counties by all federal positions in a given county when compiling employment statistics for total jobs in the private and public sectors.)

Fort Indiantown Gap is the larger federal employer of the two located in Lebanon County with about 2,000 full-time and 15,000 part-time employees; the VA employs 1,349 full-time and 107 part-time federal workers, according to information provided by Groh.

Exactly how many Gap workers live in Lebanon County, however, is unknown. A majority is believed to reside locally, according to Rhen.

“As far as employees, Fort Indiantown Gap has about 2,000 full-time employees, and they’re a mix of federal employees, state employees and contractors,” wrote Rhen in his email response. “It’s difficult to figure out which county each of them resides in, but I would say a majority of them come from Lebanon, Dauphin, Berks and Schuylkill counties.”

What research Gap officials have conducted that shows their mission would be compromised and that the safety of their personnel would be at risk if this project is greenlighted is unclear. It is also unknown when the Department of Defense is expected to issue its ruling in this matter.

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...