LOWELL MOUNTAIN – Two drilling crews sent dust into the air at the top of Lowell’s ridgeline at noon Wednesday.
They drilled holes for the dynamite that would blast the top rock off site 7, where a 459-foot-tall wind turbine is planned, but protesters within the blast zone altered the plan.
To the north, visible on the horizon, is Jay Peak and the distinctive shape of the mountaintop tram house.
To the south is Sheffield Heights. On a clear day on the Lowell ridgeline, one can see the white turbines of the Sheffield wind project.
To the east, about 700 feet from site 7, is the camp of protesters who have been occupying the edge of the Lowell wind site property on and off in hopes of stalling or even stopping blasting.
At noon Wednesday, the area was quiet under lowering clouds. The camp was out of sight behind stacks of tree trucks, slightly below the ridgeline, said Green Mountain Power contractor Bob Keller.
At that moment, Keller and GMP spokesman Robert Dostis didn’t know if the protesters were there. Keller said he and other workers would find out when they headed out to patrol the perimeter of the 1,000-foot blast zone around site 7 to make sure no one is in the blast zone before blasting could begin.
By early afternoon, GMP officials found protesters at the property edge, within the blast zone.
“They refused to obey the court order to move away from the blasting zone,” Dorothy Schnure, spokeswoman for GMP, said late Wednesday afternoon.
“We were able to do a modified blast in order to make it safe. However, alternative blasting is more costly and slower,” Schnure said.
The protesters staking out land on Nelson property adjacent to the Lowell wind site were under a judge’s temporary restraining order to not encroach upon the blast zone.
A court hearing about the restraining order is scheduled for today.
Wednesday was the first day for blasting on top of the ridge. Blasting continues on the access road below, most recently at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Keller said.
The land all around site 7 at the crest of the ridgeline is a logging area. Heavy blast mats, made of layers of old tires strung together with steel cable, lay folded on the ground like a giant snake’s shed skin. They were ready for use once the drilling was complete.
The mats are standard use in blasting zones to limit the “fly-rock.”
Soon, the road that has reached the top of the ridgeline is scheduled to branch out to become what’s called the 3.2-mile crane path, one section heading northeast on the ridgeline toward the northern turbine sites and one section heading southwest for the rest of the sites.
In all, 21 turbines are scheduled to line this ridgeline, if all permit conditions are met by next year.
Protesters won’t stop the work, GMP officials say. But they could cause more than $1 million in delays.
Trees are being cut for the crane path, making way for blasting crews and then road-building and drainage crews.
If blasting continues on schedule, the concrete pads could be poured this fall for some of the turbine sites.
The road that reaches site 7 is itself a construction zone, filled with huge dump trucks, bucket loaders, logging trucks, trucks filled with dynamite, four-wheel drive pickups and other huge pieces of equipment. It’s a slow drive up and slower down, waiting for culvert work here or a truck to pass slowly by there.
About 75 people are at work on the wind project, many with Vermont companies.
The road begins at the bottom of the mountain. It starts to the northwest at a staging area off Route 100 in Lowell, west of the village, and climbs 2.7 miles to site 7. Part of the lower section is still under construction, so those who need to reach the top must use Meek Road through nearby logging land owned by Tripp Wileman to reach the access road part way up the mountain. Within weeks, the access road would be complete, Keller said, and Meek Road would no longer be needed.
Wileman owns most of the Lowell wind project property, leasing it to GMP. Hundreds of acres belonging to Wileman will be conserved in mitigation for the Lowell wind project.
Keller said the bed of the road is filled with up to six feet of blasted rock. Water seeping out of the ground on the hillside creates constant work to shore up the road. It will be packed down and graded continuously until it is capable of carrying the trucks loaded with cranes that would lift the turbines in place, and the turbine towers, nacelles and blades.
A large area halfway up the access road has been cleared and leveled for the construction of the substation to handle the electricity the turbines will generate.
The roads and cleared sites all require drainage ponds and diversions. Newly opened soil is covered everywhere with hay to deter erosion. Ponds lined with rock follow the road up the mountain. Tiny streams that reach the road are run through rocky catch basins designed to catch the silt so the water emerges below the road running clean and clear.
“Do you see it?” Keller said, pointing to one of the tiny streams. “It is clear water.”
When the road is finished, the roadsides will be planted with grass and shrubs to complete the erosion controls.
In early October, GMP’s contractors failed to follow all stormwater runoff control requirements during construction, prompting a stop-work order from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. That order was lifted within a week.
On Friday, inspectors from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and ANR toured the work site, Keller and Dostis said.
“We got a clean bill of health,” Keller said.
The work will progress, weather permitting, right through the winter.
GMP wants to have the turbines online by the end of next year to secure federal production tax credits to keep the costs down for ratepayers.