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Would Lowell’s wind turbines be heard?

MONTPELIER – The noise expert who testified for an opponent of the Sheffield Wind Project took the stand here Tuesday on behalf of a new client, Green Mountain Power (GMP), the Vermont utility that wants to raise a wind farm on Lowell Mountain.

Ken Kaliski, who has twin degrees from Dartmouth College in environmental studies and engineering, testified in front of the Public Service Board (PSB) that he did not know where his former client – the town of Sutton – stood on the Sheffield project.

“Didn’t know if they opposed it or not,” he said during the eighth day of technical hearings on whether GMP should receive a certificate of public good to build up to 22 turbines on Lowell Mountain.

“Wasn’t told one way or the other.”

As an expert for GMP’s project, however, Mr. Kaliski has told the board in written testimony filed earlier that the Lowell Wind Project meets existing noise standards and will not have an adverse effect on its neighbors.

“The sound levels from the turbines will not rise to a level that can create hearing damage or pose quality of life concerns with respect to sleep disturbance or speech interference,” he concluded in testimony filed with the board on May 21, 2010.

The appearance of Mr. Kaliski on the stand marks the beginning of testimony on a subject that may be the most critical of all when it comes to siting wind farms not only on Lowell Mountain, but on any Vermont ridgeline. The board is expected to hear conflicting testimony this week from other noise experts, including some in the services of those who oppose the Lowell project, the second wind farm targeted for Orleans County.

Michael Nissenbaum, a Maine medical doctor who has made a study on the impact turbine noise has had on residents of Mars Hill, has reached far different conclusions than Mr. Kaliski when it comes to the harmful impact the Lowell project will have on its neighbors.

“There are several residents living within a distance from the turbines at which adverse health effects may be experienced,” he concluded in written testimony submitted on October 2010 on behalf of the town of Albany.

“The large size and potential for increased lower frequency noise output from these turbines pose a real risk of both audible sound and infrasound that could disturb sleep patterns, and lead to increased headaches, psychological stress and auditory and vestibular system disturbances as discussed above.”

A scheduling conflict will prevent Dr. Nissenbaum from giving oral testimony before the board but, as Tuesday’s session indicated, turbine noise promises to be one of the hearing’s most contentious issues.

Mr. Kaliski testified that less testing was done at Lowell than Sheffield in an effort to find a more representative time when there would be fewer obstacles or interruptions. He said early spring and late fall were the best times for testing because of the lack of leaf cover.

Tests in Lowell were conducted at five locations as opposed to four at Sheffield, but Mr. Kaliski said more tests would be conducted at a location if noise complaints were raised. More refined comparisons could be made, he added, once the Sheffield project is up and running.

One of the problems arising from the tests is there is no wind farm operating in the area to provide a benchmark. Experts, like Mr. Kaliski, run their tests based on models, and sometimes mix and match criteria used in testing noise from non-turbine sources.

In an answer to a question from board member John Burke, Mr. Kaliski said there was too much background noise during the Sheffield testing to provide a sample of the turbine noise under different conditions.

“Is a snowstorm louder than a rainstorm?” asked board Chairman James Volz.

Mr. Kaliski replied a snowstorm would probably be louder because of the related activity, like the noise from snowplows.

Attorney Jared Margolis, who represents the towns of Albany and Craftsbury, repeatedly suggested to the board that the noise modeling use for the Lowell project lacked scientific foundation. For example, the attorney objected that tests were only conducted at six sites that were purposely chosen rather than randomly selected as advised by other guidelines in the field

“The sound levels we monitored meet the accuracy required to come to the conclusions we came to,” said Mr. Kaliski, who defended his methodology and said the tests were conducted for “only represented areas around the project.”

And in response to the attorney’s probing that the tests failed to measure the impact a wind shear would have on turbine noise, Mr. Kaliski exuded confidence in the results of his methodology.

“Our model is extremely cautious and has taken into account all types of variables in the meteorology that is out there,” he said.

The give and take between attorney and engineer went on most of the morning and into the afternoon. Mr. Kaliski, who made a habit of looking at the board when responding to the attorney’s questions, frequently gave long responses that did not go to the heart of the question.

The tactic may have had an unintended consequence when Mr. Margolis used up his allotted time and asked for an extension, citing Mr. Kaliski’s amplified responses.

Chairman Volz agreed.

“He hasn’t been a crisp responder,” he noted, granting the extension.

One of the contentions explored by Mr. Margolis throughout his cross examination revolved around the impact of a wind farm’s operating noise on a rural area, and how loud the turbines will be.

Mr. Kaliski acknowledged the sound would be audible, but said it would fall within the board’s accepted range of 45 decibels.

Mr. Margolis noted that presently background noise was measured at 30 decibels, and expressed surprise that an additional 15 decibels would not be intrusive. And when Mr. Kaliski stuck to his conclusion that the noise would not have an undue adverse impact – one shocking or offensive to the average person – the attorney could hardly believe his ears.

“So, it would have to break our eardrums to be unduly adverse?” he said.

“No,” said Mr. Kaliski, who added that adverse reactions such as sleep disturbance would be meaningful only if a significant number of people were affected.

“A majority?” asked the attorney.

The engineer said the noise impact would not be shocking or offensive to the average person.

But Mr. Burke of the board wanted to know if 45 decibels would likely affect sleep.

“My opinion is that it would not,” replied Mr. Kaliski, who went on to acknowledge that a decibel range between 40 and 50 could disturb sleep.

“So it’s a subjective standard?” asked Mr. Burke.

“People are more or less entitled to the same amount of noise no matter where they live,” replied Mr. Kaliski, adding that people in Burlington were likely to be accustomed to a higher level of noise than someone living in the country.

He went on to note that there are wind farms throughout rural areas in the country and that “complaints are fairly low.”

Asked by board member David Coen if he was comfortable testifying as an expert about the meaning of what constitutes an “undue adverse effect,” Mr. Kaliski acknowledged that he was.

Testimony in the hearings is scheduled to end Friday.