SHEFFIELD – More than 50 residents of the Northeast Kingdom turned out on Monday night for a hearing about First Wind’s pursuit of an Endangered and Threatened Species Taking Permit from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
The owner of the Sheffield wind turbines seeks the permit to allow for incidental killing of the little brown bat.
General Counsel for the ANR David Englander and Scott Darling, district wildlife biologist with the agency and an expert on bats, oversaw the hearing in the basement of the Sheffield Town Hall, called by agency Secretary Deb Markowitz, who was not in attendance, but scheduled the public hearing because of the unusually high public interest in the taking permit sought by First Wind.
Englander opened the meeting by stating that the department issues between 40 and 60 “taking” permits a year, and said Tuesday that the Agency has issued 26 permits in 2012.
What makes this permit application unique is that “It is the first Takings permit application for a wind generation facility,” Englander confirmed on Tuesday.
Without the permit, now in its draft form, First Wind would be prohibited by law from any fatalities of the endangered bat species as a result of its activity at the Sheffield site.
The Boston-based First Wind company is seeking the permit citing economic hardship, noting that to curtail its wind operation to the extent that zero bat fatalities would occur would hamper the project’s financial viability.
That argument did not sit well with many of the local residents opposed not only to the bat taking permit sought by the firm, but to more wind farms being raised in the mountains here.
A handful of the members of the state’s Endangered Species Committee, volunteer scientists who advise the state on matters such as this, were in attendance at the hearing, and Chair Sally Laughlin said the group offered numerous, stringent conditions under which such a bat taking permit might be issued. Ultimately the decision on whether to grant the permit is in the hands of the secretary, and some members of the public were upset that Markowitz herself was not at the hearing.
First Wind has voluntarily adjusted operations of their turbines, said Darling, to try to reduce bat fatalities, and has partnered with a university, state and federal governments and Bat Conservation International group on an extensive, two-year study. When the First Wind farm here was first approved, several of Vermont’s now endangered bat species, little brown included, were not yet threatened, he said.
John Lamontagne, spokesman for First Wind, said on Tuesday, “First Wind has voluntarily gone above and beyond the state requirements related to studying the impacts of turbines to birds and bats … The work we are doing far exceeds the minimum requirements under our permit.”
Darling said, white nose syndrome has decimated the population of little brown bats and other types. Of a total of 62 known bat fatalities counted since April 15 when the Texas Tech study commenced at the Sheffield wind site, one is a cave type and it is “in the freezer.” Genetic work will be done on it, but it is not known for certain if it is a little brown or an endangered type, state officials said.
Of the 62 bats found on the ground around the turbines, 42 of those are migratory bats, noted Darling, which are the type most commonly killed by turbines, and not threatened. The students from Texas will be at First Wind through Sept. 30 and back again next year as part of the study at the wind development.
Ron Pal of Sutton said more than once he hoped the wind towers would be shut down, suggesting at one point that the turbines be taken off line “from spring until fall while the bats are out.”
Before taking his seat, Pal said, “There’s a lot of people in here who probably voted for Shumlin and Obama, and that’s the reason you have the wind towers today. Those of you who voted for Obama or Shumlin go home and look yourself in the mirror tonight and that’s why we have the wind towers.”
The first of First Wind’s storm water permits was initially approved in 2008 and the Public Service Board issued a certificate of public good for the project on Aug. 8, 2007, during Jim Douglas’ administration. The renewable energy tax credit program that subsidizes wind energy was first passed in 1992 and most recently renewed in February 2009 as part of the “stimulus” act.
There were two First Wind employees at the meeting, but they barely spoke.
Zach Leonard of Westfield spoke against the permit. “It’s very awkward and very embarrassing for my state to be sanctioning the killing of a keystone species that eats night-flying mosquitoes,” he said, saying West Nile virus, a deadly disease spread by mosquitoes, is on the rise. “You’re taking our one line of defense that occurs naturally…should Vermont become inundated with West Nile virus… It just seems like a sham; it doesn’t seem like this would be a law or a permit that would actually fly legally.”
Steve Wright from Craftsbury was harshly critical at the lack of public information made available before or about the meeting, saying “no material was sent to the public…This work is served by you being informed, and we have an agency that is not informing the public.”
Lowell resident Robbin Clark said during the bats primary feeding and activity times at night, the turbines should be turned off. “Why even have this permit? Just shut them down at night. We wouldn’t need this hearing.”
Newark resident Noreen Hession asked, “What would it take to get the ANR to stand up for Vermont and for bats to have a zero mortality for bats?”
Lyndonville resident Michael Miller, a science professor at Lyndon State College, observed, “The logic that I’m getting from [the fact other takings permits have been issued] is that many wrongs make a right…This slippery slope that we go down with allowing potentially a takings permit for an endangered species…what precedent are we setting by going down that slippery slope?”
Said Lamontagne, “The incidental take permit that First Wind has applied for is issued routinely by the State of Vermont for a variety of species. Obtaining such a permit is not new or unprecedented. It is well-established as a legally and ecologically sound approach to addressing the possibility that some take may occur that is purely incidental to an otherwise lawful activity in our case, operating a wind project. First Wind has applied for this permit to ensure we stay within the law in the event we do take a protected bat species.
“To date, there are no documented takings of protected bat species at the Sheffield project,” he said.
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