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Work suspended on Lowell wind project

(Host) Green Mountain Power says work started on its Lowell Mountain wind project without state permission.

The work included filling in a wetland that was supposed to be protected to lessen the impact of the ridgeline development._

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, the Agency of Natural Resources is now investigating.

(Dillon) On a site visit to its proposed Lowell Mountain wind project, GMP said it had discovered that trees were cut down without permission. The company also saw that landowner Trip Wileman – who owns the ridge where the turbines will be built – had installed culverts and filled in part of a protected wetland.

Dorothy Schnure is a GMP spokeswoman.

(Schnure) “We have taken these errors very seriously. We have asked the contractors to leave the site. We have asked Mr. Wileman – and he’s agreed – not to access the portions of his land that are in the conservation easements. We want to make sure that nothing else happens that is not correct and appropriate and under permitted conditions.”

(Dillon) The wetland issue is a problem for GMP beyond the environmental impact.

GMP wants to build 21 turbines along the ridgeline. The construction will affect streams and upper elevation wetlands. The wetland that was damaged was supposed to be protected under a conservation easement to offset the impacts of the development

So the Agency of Natural Resources is now trying to determine the extent of the damage, and whether additional mitigation work will be needed. Deb Markowitz is ANR secretary.

(Markowitz) “So the first thing is we want to make sure the Public Service Board doesn’t approve any easements right now because our biologists are going up to walk on the land and our foresters are taking a look to see whether or not those changes affect those easements.”

(Dillon) Critics of the Lowell project say GMP violated the Clean Water Act by filling in the wetland. Annette Smith is executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which has questioned the environmental impact of large scale ridgeline wind projects.

(Smith) “The activities should be sent to enforcement, and those should be dealt with. And until a determination, the existing water quality permits that haven’t been issued should be put on hold.”

(Dillon) There are also questions whether the unauthorized construction will push back GMP’s time line for the Lowell project.

Jared Margolis is a lawyer who represents the towns of Albany and Craftsbury. He says the question now is whether the Public Service Board can approve GMP’s wetland mitigation plan. That approval is required prior to construction. And GMP wants to start construction August 1st.

(Margolis “Right now they don’t have a viable mitigation plan because what they were using for mitigation has been impacted itself. So that needs to be figured out prior to construction.”

(Dillon) GMP also needs a water quality permit from the state before it can start work. Several groups – including the Vermont Natural Resources Council – have challenged the permit, saying the project will damage upper elevation streams and cause erosion. GMP says the streams will be continuously monitored to assess water quality.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.