LOWELL – Lowell wind project opponents grilled a state erosion control expert Thursday evening, saying that they didn’t trust the state to prevent storm erosion on Lowell’s ridge line.
And they pointed to the recent severe rainstorms as evidence that existing methods aren’t sufficient for a changing climate.
About 40 people gathered in the Lowell Graded School for the second hearing on a draft storm-water runoff control permit for the Lowell wind project and accompanying transmission line upgrade.
State regulators on the Public Service Board this week granted a certificate of public good to Green Mountain Power and its partners to erect 21 turbines on Lowell Mountain.
GMP and Vermont Electric Cooperative have to secure a series of other permits, including the storm-water permit, before the board will allow construction. VEC members will vote on the transmission upgrade in July.
GMP wants to begin construction in August.
Kevin Burke, VermontDepartment of Environmental Conservation environmental analyst, conducted the hearing about the draft storm-water run-off permit created to tell GMP’s construction crews how to clear the sites for the turbines, the crane path on the ridge line, the access roads, mountain transmission lines and substations. The permit will also govern run-off control after construction is complete for the roads and turbine sites.
But very few comments were made about the draft permit itself.
Instead, opponents of the Lowell wind project pelted Burke with questions about how the state would oversee the erosion controls at the Lowell wind site and challenged the state’s ability to protect the source waters for parts of the Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog watersheds.
They challenged the state’s practice of conducting scheduled inspections and of granting permits for mountaintop construction. They said the state should put state overseers on site.
“I don’t understand why there wouldn’t be someone on this project every day,” abutting landowner Don Nelson of Lowell said.
“How can you have confidence in a project so massive?” asked another opponent.
Storm-water discharge permits are risk-based, allowing construction but requiring erosion controls in place, Burke said.
Larger projects such as Lowell wind have more risk and require detailed permits, he said.
Burke compared the oversight to what happens at the construction site of a large hotel or ski area.
Oversight of big projects does depend on the staff members available in his department, which is under the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, and how many other projects are in the works at the same time, Burke said.
“The department takes compliance very seriously,” he said.
Burke currently is inspecting the First Wind construction site in Sheffield, where 16 turbines are planned, every two or three weeks right through the summer.
He said he didn’t know if he would be assigned the Lowell wind project, if GMP gets all its permits in place by August.
The state will require GMP and its construction companies to hire an engineer with the qualifications to be the on-site erosion control manager. The state will approve of that person, Burke said.
Several asked how someone hired by or for GMP could be unbiased.
Burke said that person would be a trained professional with the responsibility to make sure that the permit is followed, or there could be fines.
Michael Nelson of Albany called scheduled inspections “a joke.”
Burke said that the state has the authority to visit the site at any time but usually schedules inspections when construction staff members are on hand to walk through the site and answer questions.
The state can and does do surprise inspections if there are complaints that warrant investigation, he said. “We would consider complaints seriously.”
Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, R-Newport City, asked if the draft storm-water permit took into account “the climactic conditions we are experiencing now.”
“We are in for significant climate changes that are semi-permanent,” he said.
He questioned whether standards developed during the past 30 years would hold up over time.
“I have to disagree,” Burke said.
Burke pointed out that the Sheffield wind site was in compliance the morning after 4.5 inches of rain fell in the area.
The standards are national, and reflect impacts on slope, soil type and other factors in construction on mountains, he said.
The storm-water permit “is a dynamic permit” that can be adapted to changing conditions, he said.
Others accused the state of rubber-stamping construction projects. Some likened the potential for erosion at the Lowell wind project to damage done from the now-closed asbestos mine.
Burke said he is not aware of the state denying storm-water control permits for projects. However, he said, some applications were withdrawn and not resubmitted when state officials found them incomplete or not matching standards.
The state has issued permits for high-elevation construction projects, such as at ski areas, Burke said.
The state’s role is not to approve or disapprove of projects but to guide developers to follow erosion control best practices, he said.
Steve Wright of the Craftsbury Conservation Commission urged Burke to take a good look at the Lowell ridge line before approving the erosion control permit.
“It’s astonishing to me to think we can construct at 2,000 feet” and not have erosion downhill, Wright said.