State and utility officials say a landowner and surveyors, in two separate incidents, recently engaged in unauthorized construction activities before the Vermont Public Service Board had issued final permits for a wind farm on Lowell Mountain.
Trip Wileman, who owns the site of the Kingdom Community Wind project, was found to have tampered with a protected wetland adjacent to the construction site, and the surveyors, in a separate location, were determined to have cut down 10 mature trees – without permission from the state or Green Mountain Power.
Utility officials have ordered the surveyors, under contract with the utility, and all other contractors to leave the site. Wileman has been barred from access to his land, 900 acres of which is conserved under an agreement with the Agency of Natural Resources.
Green Mountain Power planned to begin construction of the controversial 21-turbine wind farm, known as Kingdom Community Wind, on Aug. 1.
The unauthorized “pre-construction” activities, discovered on July 18 by state and utility officials, could tie up the construction schedule at least temporarily.
Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said her agency is assessing the damage, particularly the impacts of the unauthorized earthwork on the wetland located on property that is part of a proposed conservation easement area. The land set aside is part of a deal struck between the Agency of Natural Resources and Green Mountain Power in February, shortly after a scientist testified in a Vermont Public Service Board hearing about the impact of the construction project on bear habitat. The board gave preliminary approval for Kingdom Community Wind in June, but it has yet to issue a final ruling on the conservation easements.
“We don’t want the Public Service Board to approve the easement until we figure out what happened and the impact of what happened,” Markowitz said. “… What we’re looking at is whether what occurred affected the ecological functions we’re expecting from the property.”
Markowitz said her agency will also make recommendations for restoration of the wetland.
Dotty Schnure, communications director for Green Mountain Power, said the company is waiting for the Agency of Natural Resources to assess the damage. Utility officials were with ANR staff when the activities were discovered. The utility’s lawyer notified the Public Service Board of the violations right away.
“We have committed to ANR, if in assessing the work near the beaver pond if it needs to be restored, we’ll do that,” Schnure said. “If any other mitigation is required we’ll do that. We’ll make whatever amends need to be made.
Schnure downplayed a possible delay in the construction schedule. “We’re expecting to work through the issues fairly quickly,” she added.
Timing is crucial for the utility. Don Rendall, an attorney for Green Mountain Power, stated in a letter to the board that the company remains committed to beginning construction as soon as possible. Green Mountain Power is anxious to expedite the construction process because in order to qualify for $40 million in federal production tax credits for the $150 million project, the wind farm must be operational by Dec. 31, 2012.
The opponents of Kingdom Community Wind say the wetland tampering is a violation of the Clean Water Act. Lukas Snelling, communications director for Energize Vermont, says the recent violations have refueled their suspicions that the state is not adequately scrutinizing the impacts of the project on water quality.
“From our perspective the project hasn’t even started yet, and there are already management issues,” Snelling said. “ANR needs to complete the investigation and ensure remediation is in place before the Public Service Board issues permits for the project.”
Snelling said the state should conduct baseline water testing on the site before construction starts, but the wetland damage “calls into question” whether it’s possible to obtain an accurate reading, he said.
He accused Green Mountain Power of gambling with the state’s natural resources in order to rush through the project in pursuit of federal tax credits.
“If we’re rushing doesn’t that call into question our ability to do it right?” Snelling said.
Annette Smith, a vocal opponent of the project and executive director for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, says the Vermont Public Service Board has yet to issue the draft System Impact Study, and permits for stormwater runoff, transmission lines and wetlands.
In addition to the aforementioned permits, Green Mountain Power has not yet obtained a Vermont 401 Water Quality Certification permit. Several state environmental groups have expressed concern about the impact of the extensive road clearing for the project on Lowell Mountain streams.
Kingdom Community Wind has also garnered attention from federal agencies. In June, the National Park Service asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to coordinate with state agencies to ensure that the turbine construction project does not impact tributary streams that feed into the headwaters of the Missisquoi River, located about 25 miles from Lowell. The Missisquoi is undergoing a U.S. Department of the Interior review for federal wild and scenic river designation. The Park Service calls for baseline monitoring of the water quality on the site and ongoing monitoring for five years after construction of the wind farm. Baseline water testing is not required under state law.
Surveyors under contract with Green Mountain Power were authorized to engage in “pre-construction” activities, such as trimming tree branches that interfere with line of sight. In one heavily wooded location, however, they cut down 10 mature trees with chainsaws.
In a letter to the board, Green Mountain Power officials said the cutting was “in violation of a clear directive.” The location of the 6-foot by 2,500-foot clearcut swath is part of a designated, 3.8-mile “crane” road that will enable cranes to get to the top of the mountain where the 459-foot turbines will be erected. The project also includes a 2.7-mile access road.
According to a Green Mountain Power statement, Jeff Nelson, the utility’s wildlife ecologist, “verified that there has been no adverse effect on wetlands or streams as a result of this activity.”
The Agency of Natural Resources is assessing the potential water quality impacts caused by the cutting, but agency officials have focused more attention on the wetlands disturbance.
“Wetlands always have a water quality function, no matter what,” Markowitz said. “For the purpose of the 401 water quality permit, we’re definitely taking this into account,” Markowitz said.
Markowitz said agency staff reviewing the site as part of the permitting review discovered the earthwork in the Class II wetlands.
The landowner, Trip Wileman, dumped fill into part of the wetlands and disturbed earth inside a 50-foot buffer zone near a beaver pond that is part of the proposed conservation area. Wileman is leasing that parcel and the adjacent site for the Kingdom Community Wind project to Green Mountain Power.
In an interview on Friday, Wileman described the earthwork as an attempt to remediate “some runoff issues to prevent a discharge” near a logging trail. Wileman said he was filling in a few “ruts” near a beaver pond in order to mitigate erosion at the site, as required under state logging rules. According to Wileman, the fine for discharge water running off a logging site is $10,000 a day.
“My consulting forester assures me I did not do anything wrong,” Wileman said. “The question, as I understand it, is not so much whether I was right or authorized to do what I did, but concern about the manner in which it was done.”
In a letter to the Public Service Board, Green Mountain Power officials wrote that the earthwork included the installation of ditches, “some of which have not been stabilized,” and culverts that may be insufficient to “handle large volumes of water.” Logging road maintenance and construction are permitted under the conservation easement with the state.
A consultant for Energize Vermont, Geoff Goll, said the Agency of Natural Resources should issue a notice of violation and a wetland restoration plan. In addition, the agency should evaluate the impact on the wetland in question within the context of the three acres of wetlands on Lowell Mountain that will be disturbed by the project. In all, 150 acres of land will be affected by the construction.
Wileman chalks up the concern about what he views as erosion abatement earthwork to “an exceptional amount of scrutiny, which I didn’t fully appreciate.” He said he is waiting to hear from the county forester to see if he needs to take remedial action.
Annette Smith, of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, is worried about a different type of erosion – that of public trust in the regulatory process.
Smith anticipates that “at best, regulators will issue a small fine and a slap on the wrist to wind developers, and then allow them to proceed with their environmentally destructive projects.”
“While elected officials and regulators are holding Entergy’s feet to the fire (on Vermont Yankee), we see nothing similar occurring where wind development is occurring,” she wrote in an email blast.
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