The general manager for a Vinalhaven utility says he and his attorneys are weighing all their options after a Superior Court judge sided this week with plaintiffs in a wind turbine noise complaint case on the Maine island. Judge Michaela Murphy’s decision overturns a 2011 ruling from the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection that the judge said “had no rational basis.” Susan Sharon has more.
The excessive noise complaints were brought by a group of residents on Vinahaven who live near three 1.5-megawatt wind turbines on the island. DEP staff initially recommended that Fox Islands Wind take specific steps to reduce noise from its turbines and undertake monitoring.
But 10 days after assuming her role as DEP commissioner, Patty Aho reversed her staff’s recommendation and issued a more lenient compliance order. The neighbors appealed. And this week Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy found that Commissioner Aho “had no rational basis or relevant evidence” to justify her action.
Attorney Rufus Brown represents the residents. He says there are about two dozen of them. “The clients that I have have been suffering a long time and to finally get someone who sees the situation as the judge did is very satisfying for them,” he says. “They’re delighted by it.”
In her ruling, Judge Murphy criticized Aho for her involvement the case, noting that the commissioner formerly worked as a lobbyist for the Pierce Atwood law firm, the same firm that represents Fox Islands Wind.
Fox Islands attorney Cathy Connors declined to talk on tape but she points out that former DEP Commissioner and current Public Utilities Commission Chair David Littell was also an attorney with Pierce Atwood, one of the largest law firms in the state. She says one can’t infer bias just from a person’s work history.
Though the judge found no evidence of bias on Aho’s part, she suggested that the commissioner “consider the wisdom of her continued participation in the process.” That’s because the noise complaint case is now being sent back to the DEP. Brown says there are still no guarantees that his clients will get relief, but he remains hopeful.
“It’s a continuing struggle but what the judge said in the opinion is that the DEP has to devise a methadology to assure that there won’t be excessive noise,” he says. “So if that doesn’t happen in this next round, we’ll have access to the court to make sure that it is right.”
“You know, obviously we’re disappointed,” says Charles Farrington. “We thought what the Maine DEP provided in their compliance order was reasonable and we’ve been complying with it.”
Farrington is the general manager of the Fox Islands Electric Coop and a board member of Fox Islands Wind. He says the company has already spent close to $1 million litigating complaints about the project, which has meant that electricity rates on North Haven and Vinalhaven have remained high.
If a stricter compliance order is adopted that requires changes to the turbines, or to how often they operate, Farrington says that could have negative economic consequences for both ratepayers as well as the wind project.
“You know, it’s going to generate less electricity,” Farrington says. “There’s going to have to be constant activity and monitoring. And it’s going to cost a ton of money and the electric rates are going to be much higher.”
Farrington says he and his attorneys are weighing all of their options, including an appeal. DEP Commissioner Patty Aho is also considering her next steps. The commissioner did not respond to a request for comment, but DEP spokeswoman Jessie Logan released a written statement saying that the department is disappointed with the judge’s decision.
Logan points out that Aho met with staff at the Attorney General’s Office when she first came on board to make sure she understood how to avoid any potential conflicts of interest at the DEP.
“The commissioner has to make hundreds of decisions based on staff recommendations,” Logan wrote. “Inevitably, some will approve applications filed by clients of her former law firm but some will aggrieve those parties as well.”
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