Three high-profile mountain construction projects are demanding significant oversight from state environmental regulators these days.
These state experts must also keep abreast of massive road and bridge reconstruction in southern and central Vermont post-Irene.
That’s all while dealing with the havoc that Tropical Storm Irene caused on the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation itself.
Most of the DEC employees, including those who are responsible for overseeing some of the biggest projects the state has seen in years, were displaced from their Waterbury offices following the storm.
David Mears, DEC commissioner, said the demand for oversight made it a top priority to have his staff back into temporary offices and outfitted with equipment to allow them to work in the field.
Attention must be paid to construction work underway on Green Mountain Power’s Lowell wind project, Mears said.
“We know that’s a high-profile project on highly sensitive mountains,” he said.
The department has kept significant resources dedicated to oversight of construction permits for wetlands work and for stormwater runoff controls at Lowell wind and at Jay Peak Resort, another high-profile mountain development.
And oversight must continue as the Sheffield wind project goes operational, but that is more of an ongoing monitoring of already built runoff controls, Mears said.
“These major projects have a ripple effect,” he said.
“I feel comfortable we can do it all. But it’s not without cost.”
One of the costs will be “delays in our ability to process and respond to applications” for state stormwater and wetlands permits for other developments in the state, Mears said.
Some other projects might not get DEC permits in a timely fashion because of the demands by the mountain developments and the post-Irene disaster, he said.
He couldn’t say how long the impact will be, and what the extra work will mean for the department’s budget. He does expect to take the added cost to the Legislature.
The DEC cannot and should not shift resources away from the Lowell wind project, for example, to put more emphasis on post-Irene reconstruction, he said.
The Lowell wind project is the largest wind power project in the state. And it has “significant reporting requirements” about runoff controls – more than any other project that DEC has regulated in the past, he said.
“We are trying to learn from Sheffield,” he said.
The state depends in part on the internal oversight at the Lowell wind project, he said. GMP’s contractors are required to have a point person with work crews making sure that stormwater control permits are being followed.
Also, DEC environmental experts like Kevin Burke conduct random inspections at the construction sites.
In the spring, Burke went to the Sheffield wind project site the day after heavy rains caused damage in the NEK. There were no problems, he found.
Burke was also tasked with conducting hearings over the stormwater and wetlands construction permits for the Lowell wind project this summer. Burke and others are overseeing the Lowell wind project.
The scrutiny is more intense for a high-elevation project like at Lowell than for most other developments in Vermont, reflecting the complexity of the work and the risk of improper controls, Mears said.
There isn’t a formal rating system for developments, Mears said. No development will get an A or an F, he said.
But developers can be ordered, as happened to GMP in Lowell, to stop work on the rest of a project to make sure runoff controls are properly in place.
The state might offer technical assistance at some construction projects to help developers meet permit requirements, he said.
Or developers can be fined if the problems could have and should have been avoided and caused damage.
It’s been an interesting year at the DEC. “I feel comfortable how we’ve got it handled now.”
But Mears said he didn’t have a long-term view of how environmental regulation and oversight will evolve given the likelihood of even more electricity generation projects across the state. Another wind project is in the works in Derby and Newport City, Orleans Village and St. Johnsbury could see biomass power generation plants in the future.
The Vermont Department of Public Service is developing a draft state energy plan that envisions many new locally or regionally based power plants to wean the state off fossil fuels for home heating.
“This is a new and increasing kind of work load,” Mears said.
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