PENN FOREST TOWNSHIP – For Tammy McKenzie and her husband, life has not been the same since a farm of wind turbines went up near their home in Somerset County.
Because the turbines are so loud, every night is a struggle to fall asleep, McKenzie said. She and her husband are tired all of the time now. Their productivity at their jobs has fallen.
They sleep in separate beds, too, lest they disturb one another with the constant tossing and turning and waking up, she said.
McKenzie told her story as part of testimony at a Penn Forest Township zoning hearing Thursday night that has pitted Atlantic Wind, a subsidiary of Avangrid Renewables and formerly known as Iberdrola Renewables, against homeowners who live near the company’s proposed wind turbines.
“We’re in a lose-lose situation. No person sitting here tonight should have to lose the comfort of their house as I have lost the comfort of my house,” McKenzie testified to the board and crowd of more than 300 people.
Atlantic Wind’s project would put 37 wind turbines on as many as 260 acres owned by the Bethlehem Authority, the city’s financial arm that also owns the city’s water system. The Authority says the project would generate clean energy for the region and up to $100,000 in revenue yearly.
Thursday’s meeting centered on the testimony of McKenzie and Pamela Dodds, a hydrogeologist who said Atlantic Wind’s project could do lasting damage to the soil and watershed it would build the turbines on.
The meeting was as raucous as the ones that preceded it. Though the third day of testimony focused on the residents’ case against the turbines, Atlantic Wind’s attempts to object to McKenzie and Dodds testimony and cross examine the two were often shouted down by the crowd..
“Sit down!” and “Build it near your home!” were frequent, emphatic cries directed to Atlantic Wind’s attorneys from members of the audience who had gathered in the Penn Forest Township Fire Company No. 1.
Key to Atlantic Wind’s argument on Thursday were the facts that McKenzie lived in a different county and had encountered a different company’s turbines and that Dodds had testified about parts of the project outside of her hydrogeological expertise. Atlantic Wind’s attorneys also questioned Dodds’ motivation for testifying at the hearing since she had previously testified against wind projects.
“I’m here because I’m concerned and I’m a geologist,” Dodds said in response. “I’m here on my own volition.” The crowd cheered for her.
Prior to the meeting, the Sierra Club, an environmental and clean energy advocacy group, issued a statement in support of the project. Joanne Kilgour, chair of the group’s Pennsylvania chapter, argued the environmental impact of the project, Dodd’s chief concern, would be minimal, especially compared to coal and natural gas drilling sites.
Though he hasn’t studied the specific site of Atlantic Wind’s project, David Brandes, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Lafayette College, said similar projects have pushed dirt and other sediment into the headstreams of other watersheds.
But by the time that sediment travels through the watershed, he said, people turning on the faucet at home wouldn’t know.
Similarly, wind turbines can pose a threat to wildlife, particularly birds and bats, but it’s important to gauge that threat against those that already exist in the area, he said.
The project had previously drawn the attention of both U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and his Democratic opponent this year Katie McGinty.
At a previous zoning hearing, Toomey’s campaign had handed out fliers opposing the project, highlighting that McGinty had taken a seat on Iberdrola’s board in 2009. McGinty no longer serves on the company’s board. Ted Kwong, a spokesman for Toomey, said the campaign didn’t send a representative to Thursday’s meeting.
Both Pennsylvania state Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, and his Democratic opponent Neil Makhija have spoken out about the project and sent campaign representatives to Thursday’s meeting. Both oppose the project, but for different reasons. Heffley said the project would hurt wildlife and hurt the region’s tourism industry, while Makhija said Penn Forest residents hadn’t gotten enough of a say before the project moved forward.
“We want to make sure communities have a say and don’t get steam rolled,” Makhija said. “This isn’t just, ‘Oh, this is in my backyard and I don’t like it.'”
Three years ago, Avangrid Renewables, then Iberdrola Renewables, an Oregon company that bills itself as the second-largest wind energy provider, signed a lease with the Bethlehem water agency for the land. The company has done testing to determine if there’s enough wind to warrant a wind farm on as many as 292 acres north and south of Hatchery Road.
Bethlehem Authority has championed the proposal because it is an investment in green energy, providing $100,000 each year for the authority and would not affect the quality of the spring-fed water piped from its reservoirs in the Poconos to customers of the city and surrounding municipalities.
Opponents of the project, which include many Penn Forest residents, cite health, welfare and safety concerns, as well as worries the turbines will fragment the forest and displace wildlife.
To Penn Forest Township resident Hank Orlandini, 39, many people in the area aren’t opposed to wind turbines, they’re just opposed to building them near their homes.
“We’re not against green energy, we’re against this project,” Orlandini said. “We feel we need to project our environment and our community.”
The land is owned by the Bethlehem Authority, the financial arm of the city’s water business, and would come within less than a mile of several homes.
The proposed site is in a residential district, where a turbine farm is allowed if it meets the legal benchmarks of a special exception.
While the migratory raptor route is more than 6 miles away, bald eagles nest near Bethlehem’s dam in Penn Forest. The property also is home to black bears, rattlesnakes and other wildlife prized by ecologists.
If it gets zoning approval, the project would have to be approved by 14 state and federal agencies before it could move forward.
The hearing will continue July 21 at the Penn Township Fire Company No. 1 at 7 p.m.
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