VERGENNES – Michael Mammoliti is a man under stress. He can’t sleep. He has headaches. His modest home has assumed bunker-like qualities, with some shades in the main room permanently drawn. He keeps the windows closed even in the heat of summer.
Mammoliti blames it all on a 121-foot-tall wind turbine, erected by Green Mountain Power in December 2011 approximately 960 feet from his home. The tower sits on state land just behind the Northlands Job Corps Center in Vergennes. The noise from the turbine, together with the flickering shadows it casts over his home, has ruined his life, Mammoliti says.
“I don’t sleep any more,” he said. “This house has become suffocating because we need to be closed in. The air changes. I’m not sure what it is. As soon as it starts running, it’s terrible. My head is spinning.”
Mammoliti said he has suffered from motion sickness since he was a boy, and often feels nauseous and short of breath as a result of the spinning turbine.
“I can’t concentrate,” said Mammoliti, who works as a nurse. “Right now I’d like to go to bed, at 9 o’clock in the morning. I’d like to go back to bed because I haven’t slept well all night. It’s like that every day for me.”
Two years and counting
The Mammolitis, Michael and his wife, Brenda, have been before the state Public Service Board for two years with their complaints concerning noise, flicker and glare from the turbine, along with other issues.
Green Mountain Power points out it received 60 applicants to host the Barre-built Northern Power Systems 100 turbine that it placed – near the Mammolitis – at Northlands Job Corps. This was the first turbine of this model that the company installed in the state. In a September 2011 news release issued by GMP, Northlands Director Jim Linday said in a statement he was “…proud to be in partnership with Green Mountain Power to develop alternative ways to reduce our carbon footprint.”
Mary Powell, president and chief executive officer of Green Mountain Power, stated in the news release that the Northlands turbine was only the first of “what we hope will be many Vermont-made community-scale wind turbines in our state.” The Northlands turbine generates enough power for about 20 average Vermont homes.
Robert Dostis, a spokesman for GMP, told the Burlington Free Press the utility installed its second Northern Power Systems turbine at Blue Spruce Farms in Bridport last May, and a third turbine is in the works at the correctional facility in St. Albans.
“Our hope is there will be a lot of these turbines throughout Vermont,” Dostis said. “This is community-scale renewable power using a turbine manufactured by a company in Vermont.”
While GMP plans more turbines, the Mammolitis wage their drawn-out battle over the first one, near their home. The heart of this fight has to do with the Mammolitis’ repeated attempts to prove the negative impacts of their looming, unwanted neighbor.
In June 2012, the Public Service Board issued an order saying Green Mountain Power was in compliance with the noise level standard established in the Certificate of Public Good the utility was granted to erect the Vergennes wind turbine in December 2011. That standard requires the noise from the turbine to stay within 10 decibels of the ambient sound level at the Mammoliti’s home.
The ambient sound level at their home includes a hydroelectric plant at a waterfall about a half-mile away, GMP’s No. 9 on Otter Creek, which has three turbines generating 3 megawatts of power.
Michael Mammoliti acknowledges that the hydroelectric plant was there long before his house was built, dating back to the early 20th century, and that the sound emanating from it is more or less constant. Green Mountain Power Spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure says the sound the Mammolitis hear at the house comes from the waterfalls powering the hydro plant, and not the plant itself. But Mammoliti maintains the oasis he once enjoyed in the back of his house – away from the hydro plant – was taken away when the wind turbine went up.
“It was quiet, you could sleep outside,” Mammoliti said. “In the summer time when it gets warm, since we don’t have central air you could sleep outside in a cot. You could hear the birds.”
“Now, all you hear is this,” he added, pointing toward the wind turbine behind his home.
Clear guidance needed
The board continued to receive complaints from the Mammolitis throughout 2012, and in November of that year, issued an order re-opening their docket to “reassess the aesthetic impacts of the Project as built in light of new information regarding shadow flicker and glare that became apparent after the Project was constructed.” Noise was off the table, as far as the Public Service Board was concerned, because of the earlier finding that GMP was complying with the board’s requirements.
On Dec. 31, 2012, the Mammolitis filed a motion with the Public Service Board asking that it also expand the scope of the investigation to include low-level noise, not addressed in the certificate of public good, the loss of property value, and flicker and glare. The Mammolitis also asked that the turbine be shut down during the investigation, and that Green Mountain Power be required to pay for expert witnesses and attorney fees for the Mammolitis.
The Mammolitis do not have an attorney, but have been relying on help from Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, who has accompanied them to hearings and attended site visits to help them navigate the investigation into their complaints. Smith been involved in other disputes around the state pitting individuals against wind power projects because of the imbalance she sees in the process. intersect with her interest in clean energy?
Dorothy Schnure, a GMP spokeswoman, said she was unable to say how much the company has spent on the Mammolitis’ hearings.
“To put people like Brenda and Michael in the position to make their own case is not fair,” Smith said. “The board had five lawyers in the room. There are the poor Mammolitis without a lawyer. The board process is unbelievably expensive. Cheap lawyers are $125 an hour, and what does it cost to have somebody sit there for 10 hours? You’re looking at a $10,000 hearing.”
Christopher Recchia, commissioner of the Public Service Department, charged with representing the public interest before the Public Service Board and other agencies, said the board is currently considering changes to the complaint process.
“The board does have right now an open docket to address what we’ve learned from the wind projects that occurred so far,” Recchia said. “My goal would be to come out the other end with clearer guidance for both developers, neighbors and towns to understand what the expectation is for these projects so they can be more predictable.”
Vermont has wind farms in Lowell, Sheffield, Georgia and Searsburg, the largest by far being the Kingdom Community Wind project in Lowell with 21 turbines. All of the projects have received complaints.
Nearly a year after the Lowell wind turbines began producing electricity, opponents went before the Supreme Court last month, arguing that the state Agency of Natural Resources should not have granted Green Mountain Power permits that allow the company to use an alternative method of managing stormwater runoff from the mountain where the turbines are installed. The court has yet to make a ruling.
Recchia could not say when the Public Service Board might modify the complaint process, but said he expects the Public Service Department to be “actively working” on the project over the next several months.
“It’s too early to say right now, but what success would look like is there would be a set of standards and criteria that everybody could look to and say, I understand what’s required of me as project developer in order to gain approval from the Public Service Board,” Recchia said. “As a neighbor, I understand my path if I have concerns.”
Subjective vs. objective
Green Mountain Power hired an expert, Wes Slaymaker of WES Engineering in Madison, Wis., to deal with the shadow flicker issue in the Vergennes case. In his prefiled testimony for a recent hearing, Slaymaker defined shadow flicker from wind turbines as “alternating changes in light intensity caused by shadows cast form moving turbine blades.”
“Shadow flicker can only occur when a particular combination of conditions coincide at a specific location, time of day and time of year,” Slaymaker testified.
Slaymaker concluded the Mammoliti’s home experienced significantly less than the acceptable shadow flicker limit established by the Public Service Board of 30 hours of shadow flicker per year or more than 30 minutes per day. He said the project did not require any mitigation for shadow flicker, in spite of the software GMP had voluntarily installed in the turbine controller to stop it from spinning during the 4 to 19 minute intervals of flicker impacting the Mammoliti home on summer evenings.
Michael Mammoliti has a different way of describing shadow flicker at his home.
“The sun goes behind the turbine and then everything in this room is like a strobe light,” he said recently while standing in his living room. “I’m sitting in this chair and I start getting a headache.”
One of Mammoliti’s many frustrations is getting across, to the right people, just how drastic the impact of the wind turbine has been, from his perspective. If it sounds like a freight train in certain conditions, as he contends it does, will those conditions exist when the people who matter are there to assess the situation?
Recchia recognizes the dilemma.
“There is a lot of subjectivity in the perceived effects of these projects, aesthetically, from a sound standpoint, from an overall impact in the siting of them,” Recchia said. “The concern is that how it affects people is necessarily subjective, and we’ve got to try to find an objective way of establishing standards that are measurable and meaningful to address those subjective concerns.”
A never-ending process
The Public Service Board has yet to rule on the issue of shadow flicker, but the board did deny all of the Mammoliti’s motions filed Dec. 31, 2012. Bottom line, the board said if the Mammolitis wanted to pursue the issues raised in their motion, which were outside the requirements of the certificate of public good, they were free to do so in superior court.
“In seeking to expand the scope of this investigation to deal with matters of personal injury, private nuisance, private property rights and property value, the Mammolitis essentially have asked the Board to decide private causes of action that are outside the scope of the Board’s jurisdiction…” the board wrote in its decision of July 11, 2013.
On Jan. 14, the Mammolitis attended a technical hearing on the third floor of the People’s United Bank Building in the Public Service Board Hearing Room before Hearing Officer Thomas Knauer, who has handled their case throughout.
The hearing began at 9:30 in the morning, and went on for about 10 hours, ending around 7:30 in the evening. Annette Smith said most of the day was taken up with testimony by GMP experts, with the Mammolitis taking the stand around 6:30 p.m. Dorothy Schnure, GMP spokeswoman, points out the Mammolitis had been cross-examining GMP’s witnesses throughout the hearing.
Knauer did agree to make another site visit to the Mammoliti’s home, much to the frustration of Attorney Joslyn Wilschek of Primmer Piper Eggleston & Cramer PC, representing Green Mountain Power.
“The noise issue has already been investigated,” Wilschek said. “I feel like we’re on a never-ending process here.”
But Knauer said the Public Service Board had directed him to conduct the site visit, based on Condition 4 of the Certificate of Public Good, which says, in part, “Upon written notification of a complaint of excessive noise from the turbine, the Board, or its designee, may conduct a site visit to investigate the complaint.”
Knauer stressed, however, that he was not re-opening the noise investigation that had already been closed in the board’s order from June 2012. He suggested some dates in February when the site visit could happen – hopefully on a day when it was raining or snowing, as the Mammolitis said the noise is worse on those days – but pinning down a specific date was left for later. Knauer said he would send a memo to all concerned.
“No process can go on indefinitely,” Recchia said. “It’s difficult to imagine that in all cases we will be able to resolve everyone’s concerns to the point where every issue is resolved. I think the goal needs to be to have a firm understanding of the science, good criteria and standards to apply that are based in the science. That’s probably the fairest process.”
The Mammolitis have asked Green Mountain Power to buy them out so they can move away from the wind turbine, but the company declined. Michael Mammoliti continues to insist his whole world has changed.
“I need to be more tolerant of innovation, because we all need it, but I knew it was going to cause an issue,” he said of the turbine. “Now we have to live with the consequences of this. We have to suffer for someone else to make electricity.”
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