FAIRHAVEN – Kenneth Pottel remembers about the results of the state’s sound study on Falmouth’s Wind 1 turbine last year.
Last May, the Department of Environmental Protection made a single announcement that the turbine violated state noise regulations and so would be shut down by the town.
“It was immediate, the same day,” Potell remembers. “You’re in violation; you’re shut down.”
That response is a far cry, according to Potell, from what the state agency has done since its announcement last week that Fairhaven’s turbines have also violated state noise regulations.
Here, the DEP has recommended town officials meet with the turbine owners and together find a solution to the violations.
“They won’t even shut it down while they figure it out,” Potell said. “It just feels like they are walking away.”
DEP officials have long cautioned against comparing Fairhaven’s and Falmouth’s experiences with wind turbines. That advice has only gotten stronger since the Fairhaven study results were announced.
This week, DEP spokesman Edmund Coletta said that while the two cases have similarities, the ownership of the turbines in each town as well as the nature of the sound violations warrants different treatment by state and town officials.
Coletta said Wednesday that his agency is “following the same process” it did in Falmouth after discovering the turbines had at times violated state noise regulations by being more than 10 decibels louder than background noise.
“We had the Board of Health log complaints, we did the test based on where the complaints came from, we recorded our results and we brought the results to the turbine owners,” he said.
But while Falmouth owns the turbines at its wastewater treatment plant, Fairhaven’s are part of what is called a lend-lease agreement. Though the turbines are on town land and supply the town with electricity, they are ultimately owned by their developer, Fairhaven Wind LLC.
“Falmouth could shut the turbine down overnight because it owned them,” Coletta explained. “In Fairhaven there’s a third party that complicates things.”
Though the DEP “certainly could” order the Fairhaven turbines turned off, Coletta said “it would lead to lengthy and costly legal issues that would not resolve the problem in a timely way.”
“It’s better to work together to address concerns as quickly as possible,” he said. “That’s the road we’re taking at this time in Fairhaven.”
Now the matter is left in the hands of the Fairhaven Board of Health, which Town Counsel Thomas Crotty said can also order the turbines shut down.
“The contract clearly does not waive the rights of the town to enforce the laws,” Crotty said. “We’re not just a landlord. We are also a set of government agencies that are careful to carve out exceptions so the use of the property can still be regulated.”
But, he added, he was surprised that the DEP was not the one taking action.
“It does seem like they did the testing just as a favor to the town and the nearby residents,” he said.
One reason the DEP is reluctant to take immediate action in Fairhaven is the type of noise violations its study found, Coletta said.
The DEP’s study took place at four addresses abutting the turbines. Locations at Little Bay Road and Teal Circle were tested five times each. Peirces Point Road was tested four times and Mill road was tested twice.
Each location will be tested for slow, medium and high wind speeds before the DEP’s study is complete.
At Little Bay Road, the closest testing location to the turbines, violations were found during all three wind speeds. At Peirces point, a violation was only found during medium wind speed and on Teal Circle the violation was found during slow winds.
Coletta characterized these “exceedances” as “limited.”
“In Falmouth, ever single night under every condition and wind speed there was an exceedance,” Colletta said. “That didn’t happen in Fairhaven.”
In Fairhaven, the violations were found when winds were blowing from the northwest and northeast, at varying speeds. The turbines were found to exceed noise regulations by a range of .7 to 2.9 decibels. That range is similar to what was found in Falmouth.
Laurel Carlson, the DEP technician who conducted the study, said the first violation she recorded was so slight at .7 decibels that she wasn’t sure it was a violation until she found more at the same location.
That November testing at Little Bay Road was “just really windy,” she said, “I was not confident during that testing.”
“The only real difference between 9.9 and 10.7 decibels in this case is that one is a violation and one is not,” Carlson said. “You can’t hear that difference.”
But, she said, adding 9.9 decibels to an area’s background noisethe difference between an area’s background noise is “definitely an audible change.”
“Anything above three is something people will notice,” she said.
In the wake of the Fairhaven test results, the Boards of Selectmen and Health have scheduled a meeting with the turbine developers to come to a solution.
Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Charlie Murphy and Selectman Geoffrey Haworth have both indicated they would like to see the turbines turned off at night, regardless of how consistent the exceedances found were.
“A violation is a violation,” Haworth said Wednesday. “Whatever it takes to get them there, we want them in compliance fast.”
Developer Sumul Shah has said he would like time to test whether changing the angle at which the turbine blades hit the wind would decrease the noise coming from them.
Though Potell said he is skeptical of that approach because he feels it leaves “too much room for error,” Carlson said it could be a viable solution.
“Right now, if (the blades) are twisted to catch the most wind, they are creating a lot of pressure that then affects the sound,” she said. Though most noise from turbines is created when the blades pass the turbine tower, Carlson explained, “If it’s not passing with as much oomph you might have a quieter whoosh.”
That’s an option that was not available in Falmouth, because the blades of those turbines, which have different mechanics than the ones in Fairhaven, are not as adjustable.
Louise Barteau, who has been advocating for Fairhaven’s turbines to be shut down even before the test results were released, said the Fairhaven findings show that wind turbines should not be placed so close to people.
In Fairhaven, there are 701 homes located within a 3,000-foot radius of the turbines, according to officials. The closest neighbors, on Little Bay Road where most of the violations were found, are 900 feet from the turbines
Little Bay Road is 400 feet closer to Fairhaven’s turbines than locations in Falmouth where noise violations were found.
“Too many people live too close to them, and now we have proof that it’s too noisy,” Barteau said.
Even before the outcomes of the sound studies in Falmouth and Fairhaven, Massachusetts clean energy proponents began taking a look at their turbine citing requirements.
Nills Bolgen, who works with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, said his organization has become “more conservative” in requiring project proposals seeking funding to provide more detailed data if they are close to residential areas.
In 2005, when the Center began requiring applicants to provide acoustical data, Bolgen said it was done on an “ad hoc” basis.
Now, all turbine proposals within 2,000 feet of residences must provide that data.
Colletta at the DEP said the state has been reviewing its noise regulations and turbine citing guidelines since January 2012, before either Falmouth or Fairhaven’s turbines were found in violation.
“We’re looking at if steps need to be taken to change siting of wind turbines because of noise,” he said.
The study is ongoing, and Coletta could not provide a date for when the review would be complete. But, he said any steps that might be taken probably will not affect preexisting projects like in Fairhaven in Falmouth.