(PONTYPOOL) Kawartha Lakes Fire Chief Mark Pankhurst underwent a ‘baptism by fire’ as he was grilled by Ministry of Environment and wpd Canada lawyers about the potential risk of a fire or oil spill in industrial wind turbines.
Chief Pankhurst was qualified as an expert witness at the Environmental Review Tribunal on Monday (Nov. 24) as the case for the appellants in a controversial wind energy project winds down.
Wind energy company wpd Canada received provincial approval last December for the Sumac Ridge project, the first of three proposed wind turbine farms in Manvers Township. Sumac Ridge will have five mega-turbines at the site on Ballyduff Road on the Oak Ridges Moraine.
Three groups appealed the decision; Manvers Wind Concerns (MWC), a group of local residents and opponents, Cransley Home Farm Ltd. and the Cham Shan Temple. Eric Gillespie is the lawyer representing the appellants.
The Cham Shan Temple is a multi-million dollar initiative of the Buddhist Association of Canada, which will mirror pilgrimage at the four great Temples in China. They have already built one Temple near Omemee and planned three more in the City, but that will be jeopardized if the wind turbines are installed.
Witnesses for the Temple are scheduled to testify next month.
Heather Gibbs is vice-chair of the Tribunal, an independent body hearing the appeal in Pontypool. The appellants’ case began last Monday (Nov. 17) and the respondents will be heard in December. The respondents are the director for the Ministry of the Environment, represented by Andrew Weretelnyk, and wpd Canada, represented by John Richardson.
The first item was to qualify the chief on what he could speak to; he has specific training and expertise in hazardous materials and dealing with such incidents, although he has never dealt with a fire in a wind turbine.
Chief Pankhurst testified that while wind turbines are not yet something the City of Kawartha Lakes Fire Service has to deal with, he has kept abreast of the issue because of its “sensitivity” in Manvers Township.
He said firefighting in the area poses its own challenges, due to the hilly terrain, large forested and agricultural lands and prevailing winds. Another factor is controlling specatators at large fires, such as a barn fire; Chief Pankhurst said people out hiking or riding the ATV trails will often be drawn to watch, meaning firefighters must keep the area clear.
“Fires spread rapidly in this area…we take a risk-based approach to every service we provide,” he said, explaining that wind turbine fires “present new challenges” to Ontario’s fire services.
The chief said he has an information file on wind turbines, in which he keeps material that is sent to him from various sources, including fire agencies. He has also compiled some of his own research; some of it from Europe where wind turbines are much more prevalent.
The file, he said, is an effort to stay informed about wind turbines and procedures if an emergency happens.
But, as has been a hallmark of these proceedings, much arguing occurs as to whether a witness is qualified to speak on a given area.
Mr. Weretelnyk and Mr. Richardson maintained that the information Chief Pankhurst has in his file could have been pulled off the Internet by anyone, and that there has been no effort to verify its accuracy. They also questioned how the chief could address a wind turbine fire or “blade throw” (the blade detaching and flying hundreds of metres away) when the fire service has no experience dealing with wind turbines.
Chief Pankhurst dug in, saying that if a turbine caught fire, the cause would likely be electrical. But if the hydraulic oil also ignited, the result could be disastrous.
As in a large barn fire, there is little firefighters can do, he said, and the turbine would simply be allowed to burn. Fire crews would work instead to prevent the fire from spreading. The chief said the rapidity with which fires spread in the area, because of large grassy areas and high winds is a significant factor.
He defended his wind turbine file, saying it is his responsibility as fire chief to ensure the latest fire safety, suppression and prevention information is available in order to determine policy. While there are no industrial wind turbines in the City yet, the chief said it was his duty to stay informed.
“Anytime there’s an emerging trend or issue we try to have as much information as possible,” he said, adding he wanted to ensure that information was available to the Tribunal.
The chief maintained that a wind turbine fire was “low probability” but high risk if it did occur, especially if hydraulic oil spilled into the ground. The fire service does not have the resources to deal with such an environmental catastrophe, the chief noted, especailly given the permeability of soil in the area.
The respondents also objected to Chief Pankhurst’s referral to a report by former fire chief David Guilbault in 2007 about a fire on Ballyduff Road (where one of the turbines is proposed to be built). That fire burned 125 acres near Fleetwood Conservation area. The lawyers argued that Mr. Guilbault was not present at the proceedings and his report should not have been part of Chief Pankhurst’s testimony.
The MOE’s lawyer said while it was a report, “it also contains Mr. Guilbault’s opinion.”
But, Chief Pankhurst, noting Chief Guilbault is fire chief at another municipality, said he had “no reason to question” the report about that fire, as all fires must be reported to the Province.
The respondents also argued that the property where that fire occurred is still in a forested area that presents the same accessibility challenges for fire crews now as it did in 2007.
Mr. Gillespie argued that the chief “has acknowledged he is not an expert on industrial wind turbines” but can form an opinion as an expert when relying on the information from other experts.
“The fact that he is not an expert on wind turbines puts him in the category of 90 per cent of the witnesses” that have come forward so far, Mr. Gillespie said. He added none of the respondents came forward with objections to the documents in the chief’s witness statement prior to the proceedings.
Mr. Gillespie also pointed out that the chief is responsible for sending firefighters into any fire situation, and had to have some knowledge of that situation before doing so; that in the case of a wind turbine fire, he would have to know something about the chance it might collapse.
Chief Pankhurst said that while wind energy farm owner/operators must have fire suppression systems in place, a real concern is the environmental impact of a hydraulic oil spill. He noted that if a fire compromised the integrity of the oil reservoir in the turbines, a spill could result.
“A leak in a paved parking lot is not the same as a leak in sandy soil,” the chief said. “Contamination could happen before we were notified.” The permeability of the soil, he said, is a major consideration if a spill were to occur.
The Chair ruled some of the documents from Chief Pankhurst’s wind turbine file that spoke to the likelihood of a turbine fire was not admissable, agreeing with the respondents that it was not the chief’s area of expertise and that he was not in a position to verify the information contained.
The appellants may need another day or two to complete their case as proceedings are taking longer than expected, but the respondents’ case is expected to start the first week of December.
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