BETHEL — An environmental judge may have cleared the last remaining hurdle facing developers who are anxious to get the Sheffield Wind Project up and running.
Environmental Court Judge Merideth Wright has ruled that First Wind’s plan to protect the waters and the environment during the construction phase of its 16-turbine wind farm are adequate and do not require extensive alterations.
The ruling rejects an appeal from the opposition citizens group known as the Ridge Protectors who argued that preconstruction studies were needed to determine water quality. Without firsthand studies of the five streams that run through the project’s area, they said there would be no benchmarks to measure the construction’s impact on the waters.
In turning back the appeal, the judge said that the best management practices (BMPs) required by the state were adequate safeguards when it comes to controlling storm water discharge down steep slopes.
“A year of monitoring would not add relevant data and has not been shown to be necessary to achieve or maintain water quality in those streams,” the judge wrote in her 28-page ruling.
She further noted that “if correctly chosen and properly implemented,” the BMPs would control or minimize erosion and runoff on the site.
While the judge’s finding may have significant ramifications for placing industrial wind turbines on Vermont ridgelines, a spokesman for First Wind Tuesday declined to comment on the bigger picture.
“We’re excited to get started with this project,” said John Lamontagne, director of corporate communications speaking from the company’s Boston headquarters.
A brief press release from the company Monday praised the decision and said the project will bring economic opportunity to the Northeast Kingdom.
But as someone who has worked for First Wind on the project, the board chairman of Renewable Energy of Vermont said Tuesday that the judge’s ruling reflects the company’s willingness to go the extra mile to protect the environment.
“It’s an example of a developer trying to do the right thing,” said Lawrence Mott.
Mr. Mott, who was First Wind’s project manager at Sheffield from 2007 to 2008, said the company went beyond the measures required by the Agency of Natural Resource (ANR) to protect the state waters.
“We felt there was a better way to do it with the new science,” he said, noting that under the plan submitted by First Wind there will be less cutting and less of an impact on the environment.
But one thing the ruling did not do was to dampen the controversy that has dogged plans for placing 400-foot lighted towers on Vermont ridgelines.
Paul Brouha of Sutton, who spearheaded the Ridge Protectors’ appeal, said in an e-mail Monday that Judge Wright’s ruling “has enormous implications that extend well beyond wind turbines on Vermont’s ridgelines.”
In an interview Tuesday night, he called the ruling “very troubling,” adding that it raises questions over Vermont’s ability to serve as a delegate and enforce the federal Clean Water Act. He noted that the state is already facing a legal challenge to strip it of that designation because of the poor job it is doing.
“I’m not the only one who has a problem with them,” he said.
The Sheffield project received a certificate of public good from the Public Service Board (PSB) in 2007 to build a 40-megawatt wind farm on high elevation ridges. The Supreme Court upheld the decision in 2009 on an appeal brought by the Ridge Protectors. The citizens’ group took the high court’s ruling in stride and took their fight with the project to the Environmental Court in the summer of 2009. Testimony ended in December, and roughly eight months later the court handed down its decision.
Supporters of big wind see the legal challenges as a stalling or delaying tactic.
“I do feel this appeal was used as a method to slow down the project,” Mr. Mott said, adding little had been gained scientifically.
Mr. Mott called the appeal process “excruciatingly long,” suggesting the Legislature tried to correct the problem by taking appeals to wind projects away from the Environmental Court and putting them in the hands of the PSB.
The transfer in jurisdiction, he said, will shorten the appeal process and “take away the chill of investing in Vermont.”
As a result of the appeal, it is likely First Wind will not be hauling its equipment this year through Barton.
Barton Village Superintendent Brian Hanson said Tuesday that an agreement with the company states that by September 1, First Wind will either provide six weeks’ notice to the village that it will using its roads or agree that no deliveries will occur until spring.
If the company goes ahead, it would push deliveries back to October 13. The deliveries are expected to take six to eight weeks, and according to the agreement, cannot run later than November 30.
First Wind’s spokesman Mr. Lamontagne said Tuesday that the company’s first step will be to log the land. According to findings in the appeal case, the project will take up 65.6 acres and will be constructed in sequence of work areas, “not to exceed seven acres of earth disturbance at any one time.”