First Wind Receives Sheffield Financing Despite Lack of a Final Permit
Project Status Remains Uncertain, Court Action Pending
Observers of the proposed Sheffield Wind project reacted with surprise to last week’s announcement from First Wind that financing had been secured for the project.
“In my many years involved in environmental permitting processes in Vermont, I have never seen a bank finance a project while the project was still in litigation,” said Stephanie Kaplan, an attorney representing Sheffield project neighbors. “To call this unusual would be an understatement.”
The project’s stormwater construction permit is currently under appeal. The permit, granted by the state Agency of Natural Resources, is supposed to regulate the amount of pollution and sediment allowed to wash into sensitive high-elevation headwater streams that run very close to the five miles of roads to be constructed for the sixteen 420+ foot tall turbines.
“The level of uncertainty that exists for this project is very significant. A motion to alter the court decision that we filed in early September still has not been resolved, and if the court does not reverse its decision, we intend to appeal to the Supreme Court. We would not appeal if we did not strongly believe that the permit was improperly granted and we are likely to prevail on appeal.” Kaplan continued. “I hope that the banks and project financers know that the stormwater permit is not yet final and is subject to reversal until all appeals are over.”
Construction on the Sheffield project began this fall. First Wind’s finances have been the subject of speculation in recent months, as the company failed in its effort to launch a public stock offering due to a lack of interest. In November the company warned federal regulators that they could start defaulting on loans in the near future. Less than two weeks ago, Credit Suisse and Macquarie Capital advised First Wind to raise equity and development capital to fund its project pipeline by divesting some of its wind projects in the Northeast. The names of the wind projects on the market have not been disclosed.
“First Wind’s financial problems are well-known and significant. I think it is a very real possibility that this project will be half-built and their money will run out,” said Rob Pforzheimer, a project neighbor who has been studying the company’s finances for the last few years. “What will the state do with a bunch of inoperable, partially built turbines? Who will pay the complete decommissioning costs if First Wind goes bankrupt?”
Others are worried that even with this funding there exists no plan to compensate the neighbors who are negatively affected by the project. Adjacent property owner Paul Brouha said, “In Vermont there’s no compensation for people adversely affected by wind turbines. Many of the surrounding properties will become unsalable, noisy, strobe lit, buffer zones for the wind project. To expect neighbors to sacrifice their homesteads, and potentially their health, without any compensation, is simply ridiculous.”
Kaplan said that the filing of the Supreme Court appeal awaits Judge Meredith Wrights decision on the motion to alter that neighbors in Environmental Court filed in September. “This case is critical because the application of basic water quality protections is at issue. The ANR permit for Sheffield did not enforce well-established state and federal standards. If that disregard for the law that protects pristine waters in Vermont is acceptable in this case, then it will also be ignored for other projects, and Vermont’s entire stormwater pollution prevention and water quality protection programs are at risk,” Kaplan concluded.
One of the fundamental issues in this case is the application of Vermont’s Water Quality Standards, which set forth very specific standards that have to be met, such as maintaining the water temperature and pH and not exceeding certain turbidity levels and stream flows. Despite the clear standards, both ANR and the Environmental Court ignored the requirement for monitoring in order to ensure that the standards are not being exceeded and the water is not being degraded from stormwater runoff from the steep and highly erodible slopes.
Energize Vermont is concerned that this project is representative of an unacceptable approach many utility scale developers take with their projects. Lukas B. Snelling, Energize Vermont Director of Communications stated, “Developers continue to force feed Vermont towns their projects and consistently fail to respond to the concerns of the host and neighboring communities. We must put our focus on community-born energy projects, and where current utility scale proposals exist we must require developers to heed community input.” Energize Vermont believes that many of the impacts created by the proposed Sheffield Wind project can be avoided with “Vermont-scale” energy development, which includes responsible siting, scaling, natural resources stewardship and community involvement.
Energize Vermont was created to educate and advocate for establishing renewable energy solutions that are in harmony with the irreplaceable character of Vermont, and that contribute to the well-being of all her people. This mission is achieved by researching, collecting, and analyzing information from all sources; and disseminating it to the public, community leaders, legislators, media, and regulators for the purpose of ensuring informed decisions for long term stewardship of our communities.
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