Vermonters For A Clean Environment say state utility regulators are working for corporate interests, not for the good of Vermont.
The Vermont Public Service Board is making “a mockery” of its obligation to see whether electricity generation plans such as the Lowell wind project meet the public good, said VCE Executive Director Annette Smith.
“Citizens around the state have lost faith in the PSB. They have made a mockery of the ‘public’ in their public benefit analysis,” Smith said Thursday in reaction to an order that appears to clear the way for Green Mountain Power to break ground in Lowell.
“It’s clear that they are there to serve the needs of developers, not protect our communities or our natural resources,” Smith said.
The PSB, in a split decision Wednesday, approved a remediation plan that reseeded the widened logging roads on hundreds of acres of land intended for conservation in mitigation for the ridge line roads for the Lowell wind project.
GMP officials said they needed the board’s approval of the remediation work before moving ahead on construction of Kingdom Community Wind.
However, GMP has yet to announce when ground breaking would begin. Spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said Wednesday that GMP officials wanted to review everything carefully first.
GMP wanted to start construction Aug. 1 in order to have the 21 turbines spinning by the end of 2012 so it could secure federal production tax credits worth millions. The tax credits would keep the costs of the wind electricity down for GMP and Vermont Electric Cooperative customers.
The two PSB members in the majority said that GMP, with the support of Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, has provided enough remediation to make up for the loss of the ridge line land.
The remediation was needed because landowner Trip Wileman allowed the widening of logging roads on the parcels to be conserved and partial filling of a beaver pond wetland. Wileman promised to leave the land untouched and provided more land in compensation. The majority agreed with ANR that the logging work was significant but the addition of extra land to be conserved made up for it, along with the reseeding.
PSB member John Burke dissented, saying that there should have been technical hearings to give opponents the chance to cross-examine GMP’s and ANR’s experts.
He said the majority order violated the constitutional rights of the towns of Albany and Craftsbury and the Lowell Mountain Group to due process hearings.
Smith, who has commented on the project but is not a party in the hearings, took the PSB to task.
“The board has been content to blindly follow GMP’s wishes and spin the whole time – why would we expect them to change their tune now?” she said.
Smith said she appreciated Burke’s comments, but the trend at the PSB remains clear.
“As this decision makes clear, there is no balanced decision-making process in Vermont when it comes to these big utility-scale wind projects,” Smith said.
The Public Service Board’s mission, as posted on the website and created by the Legislature, is “to ensure the provision of high quality public utility services in Vermont at minimum reasonable costs, measured over time periods consistent with the long-term public good of the state.
“The Board strives to achieve this mission by providing an independent, fair and efficient means of resolving public utility disputes; and by guiding the development of state utility policies and rules for public services to best serve the long-term interest of Vermont and its residents,” according to the website.
The Legislature created Act 248, which directs how the board would consider power generation projects and issue certificates of public good. And the Legislature has encouraged renewable power generation in Vermont.
Smith said she wasn’t surprised with the PSB decision. But she said she would be surprised if GMP decided right now, with all the storm damage in Vermont, to begin construction.
“Is GMP really going to deploy two teams of bulldozers to build five miles of new roads on top of the Lowell mountains at a time when all equipment like that is needed to fix existing roads and bridges?” she asked.
“What the recent storms have shown us is that now, more than ever, we need to get this right. It is unconscionable to gloss over this project’s impacts when we have other choices for renewable energy generation that are far less destructive and less costly,” Smith said.
“By destroying unfragmented high elevation habitats with highly erodible soils that protect against flash flooding, GMP’s new roads will lead to more flooding as the climate continues to change,” Smith said in a statement.
Other high elevation developments in the NEK have survived the heavy rains of Irene, developers say.
Jay Peak Resort, which has stringent storm-water runoff protections around its massive construction projects, did not experience severe flooding despite 7.75 inches of rain, according to resort President Bill Stenger.
And officials at First Wind, which has erected the first big wind power project in the Northeast Kingdom on Sheffield Heights, said its own storm-water runoff controls held despite heavy rains there.
Elsewhere in Vermont, heavy rain caused mountain flash flooding, including at Killington Resort, where a base lodge was destroyed and 400 people were trapped when roads were flooded.
It will take time for storm-water runoff experts to evaluate whether better controls of mountain runoff could have prevented some of the flooding destruction in southern Vermont.
Many homes, bridges and roadways that were destroyed were built well before the state instituted its stringent storm-water runoff requirements under pressure from environmental groups.
“Climate change adaptation requires that these high elevation resources receive the highest level of protection,” Smith said.
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