When the Public Service Board held a hearing Thursday about sound levels at Green Mountain Power’s Lowell Mountain wind project, one of the first issues raised by a Vermonter wasn’t the 21-turbine project. It was the process the board uses to make decisions.
For more than a year, small-town residents who oppose energy projects – like the Lowell Mountain wind site, the proposed Vermont Gas Systems pipeline in Addison County and other projects – have been clamoring to make the Public Service Board process more citizen-friendly. These Vermonters have repeatedly argued that the high cost of attorney fees and the deeply legal nature of the proceedings present significant hurdles to average Vermonters whose homes are located near these projects.
On Thursday, many of these tensions came to a head, when Lowell resident Robbin Clark called out the board.
“It has been a very difficult, arduous process,” she said. “Small communities cannot afford to be in this situation, and there’s no funding.”
Clark lives about 2 miles from Lowell Mountain and opposes the wind project, but she pointed out that she is not alone in her frustration with the board.
“Every community is faced with the same problem over and over,” she said. “If you have money, it seems to be that you can do whatever you want. And that’s the sad part is that everything appears to be so corrupt.”
James Volz, who chairs the quasi-judicial board, did not dispute Clark’s claims, but he said it is not within the board’s power to change the process.
“We are following the law as it’s been laid out by the Legislature, and we don’t have the discretion to do otherwise,” he said. “I understand our process is a difficult one to participate in … but that’s the process we have to follow in our statutes.”
Volz told Clark and other residents at the hearing to talk to their legislators about the issue, since they have the power to change it.
Gov. Peter Shumlin ordered the creation of a siting commission last year to address such issues with the board process, and it issued a report earlier this year calling for a more transparent and inclusive permitting process.
Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, vice chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, was the only legislator present at the hearing. She said she could not predict what legislators would do with the report or if they would change the process – a topic of heated debate last legislative session, which amounted to nothing more than an allocation of money for the House and Senate Natural Resources Committees to discuss the report and potential changes during the off-season.
“I’m still learning the lay of the land,” Cheney said.
Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, is the chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy committee. He unsuccessfully pushed for revamping parts of the Public Service Board process last session.
“I do believe there is change needed, and I think there is a major problem in the process, which is not the Public Service Board’s fault at all,” he said. “We have failed in the Legislature to put a citizen-friendly process together.”
Hartwell’s committee is set to meet with House Natural Resources and Energy in September. The committees are tentatively slated to meet on Sept. 23. The meeting will be open to the public.
Rep. Tony Klein, who chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, was hesitant last session to make any changes to the decades-old process and opted to wait for the report and recommendations from the governor’s commission.
“We’ve acknowledged we would look into making the Public Service Board process more accessible to the average Vermonter,” he said. “But making the board process more accessible doesn’t mean the average Vermonter will get what he or she wants. And I’m not sure that the average Vermonter will understand what utility regulation is all about, which is making sure the services Vermonters depend upon are delivered in a reasonable, efficient, reliable and cost-effective manner.”
Klein said he wants the public to offer suggestions at the committees’ joint meeting in September.
“I haven’t heard any, quite frankly,” he said. “I’ve heard finger-pointing and complaining, but I haven’t heard what can make it better. I’ve heard they don’t like the outcome, and because they don’t like the outcome, they don’t like the process. We are all ears and ready to hear them.”