The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources on Friday issued crucial water quality and control permits for the Lowell wind project that are tougher than those imposed on ski areas.
That means Green Mountain Power is one hurdle away from breaking ground and preparing to erect 21 industrial-grade wind turbines on Lowell’s ridge line.
State utility regulators have to sign off on the remediation work done on nearby land intended for conservation in mitigation for the wind project site called Kingdom Community Wind.
Comments from other parties about the remediation work are due to be filed with the Vermont Public Service Board by Wednesday, GMP spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said Friday afternoon.
The board could sign off on the remediation work sometime next week, giving GMP a green light to break ground.
“We are very pleased about the permits,” Schnure said. “We still need the Public Service Board to give the go-ahead on the remediation.”
The board granted GMP and partners Vermont Electric Cooperative and VELCO, the state transmission company, a certificate of public good in May to erect turbines that are 459 feet tall from base to blade tip. Co-op members voted overwhelmingly in July to upgrade a transmission line to carry the electricity from the wind project.
GMP wanted to begin construction by Aug. 1 to be completed by the end of 2012 in time to secure federal tax credits worth millions, but construction could not begin without ANR’s water control and quality permits. Other conditions in the certificate don’t have to be met before construction begins.
ANR issued a press statement from the office of Secretary Deborah Markowitz Friday afternoon announcing the permits.
“The agency has determined that the Vermont Water Quality Standards will be met, and overall mountain hydrology will be maintained,” ANR said.
ANR considers the wind project “a high priority” when it comes to monitoring, officials said. The permits were issued after repeated public hearings during the past several months.
ANR officials reacted to public comments about the project, asking that the agency treat the wind project “as stringently as we have addressed water quality impacts from ski areas” when it comes to stream bank protection and monitoring.
“The monitoring program imposed on GMP to protect high quality waters is more restrictive than any program required of any Vermont ski area to date,” ANR officials said.
ANR reacted to comment by Vermont Natural Resources Council, noting that years of development have created water quality degradation at the Stratton resort and Spruce Mountain Resort on Mount Mansfield. Therefore, those ski areas have more work to do to protect water, ANR said.
“The agency is not drawing a contrast between the ski area projects and the Kingdom Community Wind project in order to argue that the project is not a significant development in the headwaters of Lowell Mountain,” according to the agency’s response online.
“The agency agrees with the many public comments that the KCW project is proposed in a sensitive area, and that care must be taken to ensure that the Lowell headwaters and downstream resources are not degraded by the project,” it states.
“However, the agency does not agree that because there are water quality problems at ski areas, there has to be the same water quality problems at Lowell,” ANR said. “In addition, the agency has learned a tremendous amount about controlling storm water and minimizing hydrologic change in the decades since intensive ski area development was introduced to Vermont.”
GMP’s plan to protect water quality, Schnure said, “is more robust than has ever been asked of ski areas. … We’ve made an extensive effort in designing the project.”
The five ANR permits issued Friday afternoon include:
â?¢ Two storm-water permits for construction of the access road and wind farm and the associated transmission line.
â?¢ A state storm-water operational permit for control of storm-water discharges from impervious surfaces constructed at the sites.
â?¢ A state wetlands permit for work in wetlands, including required mitigation activities.
â?¢ And a water quality certification under the U.S. Clean Water Act in connection with a 404 permit issued by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
ANR notes that the design of the project protects head-water streams, including intermittent streams.
ANR reacted to complaints that storm-water controls are not sufficient to protect water quality.
Opponents had pointed to what they saw as lack of oversight of nearby land owned by Trip Wileman, where logging roads were widened in violation of forestry permits.
ANR and GMP officials were on the wind site when the logging problems were discovered in July. GMP and ANR signed off on the remediation work that wrapped up Sunday, and now must be approved by the Public Service Board.
“The agency disagrees with comments that storm-water practices required by the permits will not work or that the agency has underestimated the volume of storm water that will be generated by the project,” ANR officials stated.
GMP has to designate a knowledgeable on-site coordinator for each of four earthwork crews to make sure that erosion controls are done properly during construction, ANR said.
ANR inspectors will make unannounced site visits. The permits do not give the public a right to inspect the site, but the permits say ANR will respond to complaints.
“The project will be monitored based on the agency’s existing policies for prioritization of staff resources to perform compliance activities, including field inspections,” the agency said. “The project will be a high priority for the agency.”
ANR also stated that monitoring of runoff during and after a big rainfall would begin as soon as possible, rejecting more stringent demands from opponents. And the agency refuted complaints that there will be too much land disturbed during construction, which would create a high risk of discharges that will degrade waters below, according to the statement.
“The agency included conditions in the construction storm-water permits to minimize the area authorized for disturbance at any one time, and has placed additional checks on the applicant, such as greater stabilization requirements and additional oversight beyond what the agency typically requires in construction permits,” according to the statement.
ANR said it would use baseline information about current water quality from GMP experts.
ANR under the Gov. Peter Shumlin Administration cut a deal with GMP to conserve hundreds of acres of land for bear habitat on nearby logging lands owned by Wileman, who also owns most of the ridge line. Logging work on that area required the remediation last week.
That led one person to make this comment to ANR about the permits:
“Has the governor pressured anyone in your department to expedite this process and the storm-water discharge permit? Has he made a comment to anyone in your Department about this?”
ANR’s response was “no.”
ANR also said it couldn’t react to comments about the potential for another wind project by BNE, a Connecticut firm, on the southern end of the ridge line in Eden. BNE has a wind measurement tower in Eden. It said that no one has applied for permits for the southern ridge line.
And ANR would not compare water controls at the Sheffield wind site, already under construction, with what is being required in Lowell. The Sheffield site has fewer turbines and a smaller footprint as a result.
For the permits, supporting documents and responses to comments, check the state website at http://www.vtwaterquality.org/kingdomwind.htm.