NORTHBORO – When you listen to Barbara Johnson Durkin talk about why she opposes the Cape Wind project and your eyes don’t glaze over, that’s a good thing.
It might mean that you understand her extraordinarily heightened passion. Or that you are overwhelmed, but impressed by all that she seems to know – numbers, dollar amounts, names, dates, agencies, public hearings, legal complaints, etc. – about the controversial project to build 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound.
“I eat, sleep and drink this. I think it brings out the maternal instinct in me. It’s like the mother protecting,” said Mrs. Durkin, who, by her own account, spends 40 to 70 hours a week in her home office scanning the Internet for the latest on the project, questioning pro bono experts and lawyers from across the country, conferring with opponents of other projects, shooting off letters to newspaper editors, and filing and responding to legal complaints.
“I don’t have a dog in the fight. I don’t have any land on the Cape and islands. This issue picked me, really. It grabbed me. The issues are something that are very important to me. I have an aversion to many of the threats that I see are proposed to society and wildlife,” she said.
Since 2005, when she joined the fight, she has attended countless meetings and has spoken at dozens of state and federal public hearings. She is a co-plaintiff in two of the dozen lawsuits that have been filed in an effort to intervene in the purchase-power agreement between Cape Wind and National Grid. She most recently filed a complaint along with Californians for Renewable Energy, of which she is a member, with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Mrs. Durkin, like other opponents, believes that the review process for the project and the contract are flawed and that they will result in higher costs than originally projected for National Grid customers. Supporters maintain that 1,000 new jobs will be created, emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gases will be reduced and Massachusetts will become more energy independent.
Cape Wind’s spokesman, Mark Rodgers, said he met Mrs. Durkin many years ago. He said the two disagree and he accuses Mrs. Durkin of sometimes dealing with incorrect information. The project will increase National Grid customers’ monthly electric bill by 1.5 percent for residential customers and 2 percent for commercial customers – much less than opponents claim, he said.
“I certainly remember her. There’s nobody I can think of who’s like her,” he said. “There are groups that are opposed. Some of them have people on a payroll who spend a lot of time on it. But I’m not familiar with anyone like her.”
Unlike some opponents, Mrs. Durkin is a multilayered activist. She is fighting to protect thousands of sea birds that she says would be killed by the turbine blades, ancient tribal burial grounds that are in the Sound, the fishing industry, ratepayers and taxpayers. Erecting wind turbines in the pristine waters off the state shore, the first such project in the United States, she said, should be at least delayed until after all conservation measures have been exhausted and an audit of projects funded by Clean Energy Council has been done.
“I think it is way too much, too fast. I don’t believe it can be demonstrated that there are benefits extended by wind energy such as are touted by the Patrick and Obama administrations,” she said. “I don’t see transferring our finite resources and our monetary wealth to multinational limited liability corporations is any solution from the environmental and public standpoint. I see those events benefiting wind developers and their investors. And, that’s it,” she said.
Michael E. Boyd, founder and president of Californians for Renewable Energy, has never met Mrs. Durkin in person but knows her through the many telephone conversations and e-mails they have shared since 2007, when she joined CARE. The nonprofit was founded in 1999 during the California energy crisis. She reached out to CARE for information about its years-long legal battle against the Altamont Pass wind turbines, the world’s first wind turbines, located east of San Francisco. Last month, the state announced an agreement requiring the owner to replace 2,400 turbines by 2015, and to pay $2.5 million in mitigation fees, half toward the creation of raptor habitats.
Asked on a scale of 1 to 5 how he would rate Mrs. Durkin’s passion about stopping the Cape Wind project, Mr. Boyd said he would rate it a 9.
“She’s relentless,” he said, laughing. “She is an activist. There needs to be more people like her, not less. We all need to emulate Barbara Durkin.”
At 56, Mrs. Durkin looks a decade younger. She grew up on a farm in Shrewsbury, where it was her responsibility to care for 15 horses. The youngest of her three brothers was 15 years her senior, so it was more as if she had four fathers than siblings. Her late parents, David and Barbara Johnson, also operated small businesses in the Worcester area.
She graduated from Shrewsbury High School in 1972 but admits that, while there, she was more social than studious. She attended the School of the Worcester Art Museum and Clark University, but didn’t earn a degree. A marriage at age 24 ended in divorce five years later.
Her 29-year-old daughter from that marriage, Casey, lives in Hollywood, where she is a fashion designer with her own clothing line, and an actress. She has appeared in videos with Christina Aguilera and the Rolling Stones. She was the other woman in Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s video, “Like They Never Loved At All.” Youngest daughter, Molly, 19, a 2010 graduate of Algonquin Regional High School, is taking a sabbatical year off before going to college. She eventually wants to become a lawyer.
In her 20s, Mrs. Durkin worked as regional sales manager for Vidal Sassoon, then a start-up British hair products and salon chain. She was offered a lucrative position as company vice president but turned it down because it was not conducive to her young family.
Instead, she and her first husband opened a German hair products distributorship in New Hampshire. After their divorce, Mrs. Durkin transitioned into real estate, where she met her second husband, Michael L. Durkin. The 54-year-old broker is vice president of Coldwell Banker in Northboro. The couple’s good fortunes allowed them to build their dream home, a 3,179-square-foot house on 18 acres on Moore Lane, near the Berlin line.
Mrs. Durkin spends many hours in her home office, usually after 2 a.m. when her family is asleep, working as a “full-time environmental advocate.” Her desk and bookshelves are covered with stacks of documents about Cape Wind. She pulls herself away periodically to give her mind a rest by taking extensive walks through the woods behind her house with her two Labrador retrievers, Sophia and Bella. She enjoys skiing and golf, but she said it’s hard to find the time anymore.
She is personable with an easy laugh and the persuasiveness of the successful salesperson that she exhibited in her beauty and real estate careers. People who meet her or hear her speak usually remember her for her high degree of commitment to what she believes in.
“She’s very intelligent,” said Audra Parker, president and chief executive officer of the leading Cape Wind opponent, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. “She is very passionately engaged in fighting this project, which she recognizes as totally destructive to Nantucket Sound. She’s just very passionate and she’s very engaged.”
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