Rutted paths snake through cornfields eventually ending in giant circles around pink-tipped poles standing in wetlands, ravines and in the middle of trampled cornstalks. This time it wasn’t a cyclone that hit Cyclone Road in Brooklyn Township: it’s the heavy equipment of Goldwind USA as they resume development of Shady Oaks Wind Farm.
Paths chopped through fields sometimes don’t go anywhere at all. Other paths leave only a few rows of corn standing on either side. Farmers such as Wesley Englehart and Charlene Zimmerman are left wondering how they’re going to get the crops out of the field next month around the mounds of dirt and with only slim stands of corn left in some fields.
Englehart, Zimmerman and her brother, Alan, are among landowners that signed on to the project back in 2005 when GSG Wind Energy of Sublette started the development. The project was then sold to Mainstream Renewables which in turn partnered with Goldwind USA late last year. The project was then fully acquired by Goldwind, a company that got its start by constructing wind turbines in China. The 120-megawatt Lee County wind farm is the first large-scale project undertaken by the company following a 4.5-megawatt pilot project in Minnesota.
Englehart and the Zimmermans are now learning the hard way that the 2005 contract included a lot of implied agreements between the landowners and the developers. They both reluctantly noted the original contract left a lot of control in the hands of the developer and they didn’t anticipate the project would change hands so many times.
Charlene Zimmerman said they were led to believe the turbines would generate 2-2.5 megawatts each; instead the company only makes 1.5-megawatt turbines which means they plan to erect 70-72 turbines on farms in Brooklyn Township instead of the originally-anticipated 50-60 turbines.
The increased number of turbines results in more heavy equipment and machinery trekking through corn fields and down township roads. Englehart said they sent the first wave of subcontractors out in the spring when the ground was still wet.
“They started boring right after a heavy rain,” Englehart said. “They created these two-foot-deep ruts.”
A different subcontractor arrived to work on another portion of the project but headed off in their own direction through cornfields, cutting paths and making more ruts, Zimmerman added.
The final map of turbine locations also causes some concern for Englehart and Zimmerman.
“This down the road here, it’s registered as a wetlands,” Englehart said. “If they put it in there, it would be underwater if we have a heavy rain.”
Zimmerman said turbines on her family’s property will soon be constructed in areas that turn into ponds every spring and down in ravines.
To get to these locations, the company will bring in huge equipment for construction and installation. As a township supervisor, Englehart also criticized Goldwind for a lack of communication with subcontractors. Roads that were not meant to be used have been prepared for turbine-construction traffic in areas where there are no turbines planned. Other subcontractors have made paths through fields that aren’t even part of the project, Englehart added.
Construction timing also makes no sense to Englehart. He said they came in and started bulldozing row after row of corn while leaving the primarily Round-Up ready corn mixed with the top soil. They started the bulldozing after the corn started maturing and now the ears of corn mixed with topsoil will continue germinating for the next few years, Englehart said. The large piles of dirt ringing the remaining corn will make it difficult for combines to even get in the fields this year, Zimmerman added.
He estimates losses at $30,000-$50,000 on his land alone. According to the contract, Goldwind USA is obligated to compensate him for the loss.
“Had they did it in the spring, there would have been very little damage,” he said.
Access isn’t a problem for the wind farm subcontractors though, Englehart said. Since township bridges are up to 50 years old, they cannot support oversize traffic. Instead, they created their own road right through Englehart’s cornfield and bordering wildlife conservation habitat. Bridge replacement would have cost approximately $200,000, a cost the company chose not to pay in order to reach sites where another 11 turbines will be constructed.
“I had no problem with Mendota Hills or the one on the other side of the county line,” Zimmerman said. “But this contract is you’re basically signing your life away. The contract says they can basically do anything on your land.”
Goldwind USA is contractually obligated to repair any damage to township roads and the landowners will continue to receive income from the land used for turbines, but even those guarantees are now in question based on the company’s current construction practice.
“The contract says we’re supposed to get our money the moment they started grading,” Zimmerman said. “I’m not sure that everybody has their money yet.”
Compensation for the loss of this year’s crops could delay planting next year since they have to wait for a formal statement of acres lost to the construction. Then Englehart and Zimmerman worry about the compaction to the soil and any crushed tiles that drain water from the fields. Englehart said problems with tile could take several years to detect.
Then farmers will have to watch for the buried electric cables transmitting power from the turbines to a substation. Unlike other wind farm projects, the cables will run directly from turbine to turbine rather than along township and turbine access roads. That leaves Englehart and Zimmerman with more concerns about soil compaction and later field work.
“You’ve got the driveways, you’ve got the crane paths, you’ve got the circles (around the future turbines),” Englehart said. “It’s a nightmare.”
Englehart and Zimmerman also gave Lee County Board member Lisa Zeimetz of Paw Paw a tour of some of the areas bulldozed for construction. Ziemetz said there is little the county can do since the project is under township jurisdiction. She did ask them to be available to help counsel landowners that may be involved in future projects.
“I understand they have the right to do this, but it doesn’t seem kosher,” she said.
A message left at Goldwind USA’s Chicago office was not returned. Previously published reports state Goldwind anticipates completing the project by the end of the year.
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