When opposition against the industrial wind project on Lowell Mountain ramped up and protestors starting planning acts of civil disobedience in the face of a corporate giant – ostensibly backed by the state – imposing its will on Vermont’s poorest county, Chris Braithwaite saw a huge story unfolding.
The Chronicle publisher never imagined that covering the protests would land him in court.
But that’s not why he wrote a book about it – titled “Stand Against the Wind – Civil disobedience in the Green Mountain State.”
“I’m a writer and the material was at hand, and it was very compelling material,” Braithwaite said during an interview at the Chronicle’s Barton office.
As any reporter knows, covering a complicated issue over several months, trying to build on the story while still providing enough background for a reader new to the issue, can be a source of frustration. As Braithwaite said, “You can never pull the full picture together.”
The result is a finely penned book in which Braithwaite pulls together interviews with protestors, a cost-benefit analysis of the project, civil and criminal court cases, and Chronicle stories and editorials.
“I had gotten fascinated by the protestors,” Braithwaite said. “All came at the issue from different perspectives, converged at this mountain, and worked out their differences.”Some were concerned with the mountain’s destruction, while others pointed out the economic folly of the project.
They were different than the opponents to the Sheffield wind project, who, while no less determined, did not take the step in front of huge machinery, risking arrest, like the Lowell protesters were willing to do.
“The novelty of the Lowell situation was these people were prepared to take it that far,” Braithwaite said. “They were willing to put their own liberty and reputation on the line.”
“And it was obviously a good story. How often do you see planned civil disobedience in Orleans County?” he said.
Braithwaite sees some parallels between the Lowell protests – in which to date 17 people have been arrested for criminal contempt of court, unlawful trespass, or disorderly conduct – and the Occupy Movement.
“This idea – people up against a corporation that seemed so powerful and so well connected and in some ways so devious – it echoed strongly with that whole necessity to take a harder look,” Braithwaite said.
He also sees an interesting contrast between people occupying urban centers and people occupying a remote mountain in demonstrations that sometimes failed because the police didn’t show up.
Dr. Ron Holland’s cost-benefit analysis – which he conducted with the help of an expert – was crucial to the story.
“It was confirmation of something that I had suspected,” Braithwaite said. “It was a great addition to the debate. Aside from the aesthetics, which are very important to some people, and the effects of the sound, here was someone saying the numbers don’t work.”
At the risk of understating, Holland is a really smart guy, and his analysis is somewhat mind-boggling to those unaccustomed to crunching numbers. But Braithwaite was able to take the numbers and concepts and translate them into easily understandable terms in his book.
Holland used the same method to convince the powers that be to site a dialysis unit in Orleans County – a center that now bears his name.
“That added to his frustration,” Braithwaite said. “The same analysis didn’t seem to work in the case of the wind.”
The Public Service Board, which is intended to operate as an independent body, brushed Holland’s analysis aside, seemingly taking at face value Green Mountain Power’s “optimistic” estimates that the project provided the biggest bang for the buck within the confines set by the Legislature to address the state’s renewable energy production.
“Is that what the board is supposed to do? Say the Legislature has spoken and we can only do what’s instructed? Or is it capable as an independent body to make an independent decision and say this doesn’t make sense?” Braithwaite asked.
“They were pulling numbers out of thin air,” he said.
“We’re very stupid as a society about energy choices. We all get excited when someone turns off the oil spigot,” Braithwaite said. At one time in the recent past, hydro projects were in vogue, but now if people suggest building a hydro project, they hear, “You’re a bum,” Braithwaite said. “It’s all very irrational.”
The Civil Court Case
Don and Shirley Nelson were deprived of their property rights during a hearing in which they were not invited to participate, Braithwaite said.
As soon as the protestors’ campsite on the mountain became known to GMP, the company’s lawyer wrote a closely argued document and crafted a ruling for Judge Martin Maley to sign, ordering an emergency hearing, he said.
An emergency ex parte hearing is something usually afforded a victim of violence at home, or as Braithwaite said, “Something so urgent that we won’t notify the other side.”
Maley signed the order Oct. 14, 2011. “It was a fait accompli. It was done,” Braithwaite said.
“I think Maley made a quick decision in very questionable circumstances and committed himself to a very questionable legal position,” Braithwaite said.
“There’s a very pregnant little footnote,” Braithwaite said. The Nelsons’ attorney, Scott McGee, wrote in his request for intervention to the Supreme Court that when ex parte hearings take place, the judge is expected to provide an explanation because of the “obviously inherently unfair process,” but Maley’s decision includes no such reasoning, he said.
“There’s no good reason, only inappropriate reason to deny opposition the right to present their side of the case,” Braithwaite said.
In this “tricky legal issue of what you can do on your own property if it affects a neighbor,” Braithwaite said, work was stopped in a similar situation on Georgia Mountain when fly rock hit a neighboring property.
“But when it happened on the Nelsons’ property – and it did happen; I was there – everybody said that doesn’t matter,” Braithwaite said.
In the chill of a December day, Braithwaite watched as Orleans County Sheriff’s deputies arrested people blocking a crane path situated on land whose ownership is still the subject of a civil court battle.
When asked to move, Braithwaite did, but apparently not far enough away for the liking of GMP representative David Coriell and the deputies.
“They said there would be no exceptions,” Braithwaite said. “For some reason, GMP wanted me arrested.”
In August, when six more protestors were arrested for blocking GMP vehicles, police negotiated with the protestors, telling people to separate into groups of those who wanted to be arrested and those who did not. “The police were extremely reasonable,” Braithwaite said.
“And then up came the whole press corps,” he said, including Orleans County Record reporter Robin Smith. “I think the police waited for the media.”
“The press didn’t move and didn’t consider it. They were ordered to disperse and they didn’t,” he said.
People who were not arrested were standing within feet of where he stood when arrested in December. “They were still on the property and still trespassing, if you will, if that’s what it was, and nobody said boo to them.”
“That all seemed completely normal. That’s how it works,” Braithwaite said.
“I can’t for the life of me see any material difference between that and what I did in December,” he said. “I’m puzzled why I’m in this position and the people who were there in August had no problem doing their job.”
Legally, Braithwaite isn’t sure if that information can be used in his defense, but he said, “It seems entirely germane.”
It was the same place, the same circumstances, and the same purpose, he said. “You just do your job.”
When asked if his editorials opposing the project have made him an opponent in the eyes of GMP, Braithwaite said, “No question. Absolutely.”
But he noted that people at the Chronicle often wear different hats out of necessity. He visited the New York Times with a group of reporters from Kazakhstan, where he learned that editorial writers are not even permitted to sit down with reporters to get information.
“If we wanted to do that we couldn’t,” Braithwaite said. “We are routinely in the position of writing editorials about the stories we’re covering. It requires us to make a real effort to make sure our news coverage is fair. And I think ours was in this instance.”
A Done Deal
Braithwaite said he was stunned when he saw the difference in the mountain’s landscape from October to December. “It was pretty heart-breaking.”
The turbines are remote, and most people don’t see what it takes to get them up there, he said.
But with wind projects planned in other locales, Braithwaite is hopeful that the considerable sacrifice made by Lowell protestors has made a difference.
“I hope the protest movement has dispelled any notion that the Northeast Kingdom would be easy pickings. And that’s where we’re heading. Somewhere in the state power structure we don’t count and we can be easily pushed aside,” Braithwaite said.
“I hope people know now they’ll face stiff resistance,” he said.
“Stand Against the Wind” is available by calling 525-3531 or 525-8875.
Editor’s note: Jennifer Hersey Cleveland worked for Braithwaite at the Chronicle for 10 years as an editor.
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