READSBORO— Wherever the construction of wind turbines is proposed, controversy is never far behind. Over two years ago, Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE) filed a lawsuit to stop the construction of Deerfield Wind LLC, a group of 15 wind turbines proposed for the ridges to the east and west of Route 8 in Searsburg and Readsboro. If constructed, Deerfield Wind LLC would be the first-ever commercial wind project on national forest land. On Wednesday, Judge John Murtha will finally hear oral arguments in the case in US Federal Court in Brattleboro, at 10:30 am.
Deerfield Wind, owned by Iberdrola Renewables, would feature eight turbines in Searsburg, located near the existing Searsburg Wind Power facility operated by Green Mountain Power, and seven in Readsboro to the west of Route 8. Each of the 2.0-megawatt turbines would top out at 389 feet from base to blade tip, trumping the 197-foot turbines currently spinning in Searsburg. According to Iberdrola, the project will be able to produce enough energy to power over 14,000 Vermont households.
But VCE believes that the process by which the project achieved approval is flawed, along with the project’s location. Constructing industrial power on national forest land is something that VCE executive director Annette Smith says is a dangerous slope. “If these are allowed to be built on US forest land, it opens wind turbines to be built all over the country’s forest lands,” said Smith. “Our attitude is, we have to win, this cannot be let happen, it’s too important to allow it to go forward.”
Smith also said that the VCE wants to halt what they see as the destruction of another mountain range in Vermont, only 1.3 miles from the George Aiken Wilderness. VCE is also concerned about the dangers posed to bear, bat, and bird habitats, and the effects that blasting will have on marshlands and headwaters. “This project is a double threat to the nearby Aiken Wilderness,” said Smith. “These turbines would be far more visible and would make what you have in Searsburg now look trivial. Both light and sound will penetrate the wilderness, and it threatens to destroy the character of the wilderness. We’ve watched those mountains get destroyed and it will be incredibly painful if they get to destroy these mountains, too.”
The project was given approval after a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process was completed, along with an environmental impact statement and a 2009 Public Service Board certificate of public good. The US Forest Service will issue the special use permit to Deerfield Wind LLC to use 80 acres of national forest land. The US Forest Service will also be the defendants in the case, which will be argued on their behalf by the US Justice Department.
The VCE is not suing over the issuance of the permit, however, the group is suing over what they claim to be repeated conflicts of interest in the NEPA and EIS review processes. According to Smith, the independent experts used by the national forest service for required studies in the NEPA review and the EIS reviews were individuals who were also on Iberdrola’s payroll. One example Smith gave was the forest service’s independent consultant in charge of the EIS, John Hecklau, who VCE said was working for Iberdrola as an aesthetics evaluator for a wind project in Groton, NH, at the same time. The VCE also believes that two noise experts hired by the forest service were in a conflict of interest as they were Iberdrola consultants during Public Service Board proceedings. “All three had taken money to support these projects for Iberdrola,” said Smith. “There is no way they could be independent in their work for the forest service.”
The VCE also believes that during the EIS process, visual tests were not properly conducted from within the Aiken Wilderness, and that alternative project sites were not fully evaluated as required.
According to Paul Copelman, communications manager for Iberdrola Renewables, the company is still committed to the project, and believes that it will be environmentally sound and beneficial. “We continue to believe this is a great site for a wind farm,” said Copelman. “Like any good site, this one combines great variables. It’s a windy site with accessible transmission (the ability to connect it to a grid), it’s in an area where we’re looking at the towns’ support of the project, and a state that repeatedly demonstrates a dedication to fighting climate change.”
Copelman also said that Deerfield Wind does not have a purchasing partner for the site’s power yet, but that that process can come at any time from when a project is proposed to even after a wind farm is built and ready for commercial operation. “Generally as we move forward with a project, we’re looking for power purchasing agreements before we build, but it can vary.”
While he could not speak about any legal issues being raised in the lawsuit, Copelman said the state’s approval of the site is a testament to how sound it is. “The state has a robust and thorough permit process that governs what developers can and can’t do,” said Copelman. “Those are issues developers take seriously, too. In the end, wind energy is more clean energy and if someone is truly concerned about the impact on wildlife and the outdoor life we value in Vermont, we need to fight climate change.”
The towns of Searsburg and Readsboro support the project, and stand to gain financially. In Readsboro’s agreement with Deerfield Wind, each of the seven proposed windmills would operate at two megawatts, and once they begin generating power, Deerfield Wind will pay the town $11,000 per megawatt annually, for a total of $154,000 per year.
“Readsboro doesn’t have much going for it, and this income will help our tax rate and help fund our capital planning fund,” reaffirmed Readsboro Selectboard chair Dave Marchegiani.
Judge Murtha’s decision could take three to six months, followed by the possibility of a 60-day appeal process, depending on the outcome, which would send the case to US Circuit Court.
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