SWANTON – Swanton Wind is issuing official answers to a first round of discovery questions. Those answers illustrate the fundamental divide between the project’s developers and its most fervent critics.
The discovery process essentially begins the project’s Public Service Board (PSB) review, the required regulatory process before a project may be approved for construction. Parties recognized as formal participants in the board’s process submit specific questions for Swanton Wind. The project’s representatives must provide equally specific answers.
Answers provided so far have been generally clarifying. Swanton Wind’s respective responses to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and to Christine and Dustin Lang, residents near the project’s proposed site, offer the most information.
Many of ANR’s questions are questions previously asked, in less regulated settings, by the project’s opponents – for example, the question of blasting. The project’s opponents have expressed concern over the lack of specificity in Swanton Wind’s PSB application regarding blasting plans.
Swanton Wind responded that the specifics of the project’s blasting plan won’t be determined until after geotechnical testing, and that that testing won’t take place until after the project’s approval. The project attached a preliminary blasting plan by Maine Drilling & Blasting, out of New Haven, Vt., which explains blasting procedure, and added that Swanton Wind plans to offer pre-blasting surveys to residents within 2,500 feet of the project.
ANR requested an estimate of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project, specifically during its construction. Swanton Wind denied knowledge of any rule or regulation requiring that estimate, and offered instead an estimation of the project’s CO2 offset over 20 years: 320,000 metric tons, “a factor of 100 times greater than the carbon stored in 40 acres of trees” – roughly the acreage to be cleared for the project.
The exact acreage to be cleared was another ANR question, due to a discrepancy between testimonies in Swanton Wind’s PSB application: one testifier said 36 acres, another 42.5. The total area to be cleared is 36 acres, Swanton Wind replied, but the “total earth disturbance” is 40.2 acres, including disturbed area needed to install all the project’s components.
Swanton Wind stated the project anticipates “that with the exception of commercially valuable timber and chips useable at the McNeil Electric Generation Station, cleared trees and vegetation will be processed for re-use on site.”
The project has also developed a plan to care for rare broad beech fern located on the construction site in fall 2016. Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife representatives said the plan “generally looks good,” according to an attached email.
The ANR challenged Swanton Wind’s assertion that the project will not have an “undue adverse impact on non-avian, non-bat, non-amphibian species.” Swanton Wind acknowledged that there are signs of white-tailed deer, red fox, raccoon and Eastern coyote on or near the construction site, but said those species’ “continued presence in the project area would be expected in post-construction conditions.”
“While most of these species will likely be displaced from the immediate habitat that would be converted to project infrastructure, only the deerwinter habitat is Necessary Wildlife Habitat and this habitat will be projected,” project representatives stated. They cited the “relatively low-traffic volume dirt roads, the inanimate wind towers themselves and the greatly restricted presence of humans” as factors limiting a negative effect on local wildlife.
But what about the bats? Swanton Wind provided a multi-paragraph breakdown explaining the project’s assertion that impact on bat populations would be “limited,” based mostly on mortality rates on similar wind farms in the U.S. and Canada.
The project also attached a chart comparing annual bird and bat fatalities at similar New England wind farms. Sometimes that number was miniscule: a Rollins, Maine farm had only two. And sometimes it wasn’t: there were 87 bat fatalities at a Sheffield wind farm.
While ANR’s questions seemed to search for flaws in the project’s calculations, the Langs’ questions seem to aim at project representatives’ honesty and credibility. One question asked if architect David Raphael, who testified Swanton Wind will not have “an undue adverse aesthetic effect,” has ever testified against a wind project. Yes, said Raphael: in the case of the proposed Searsburg wind project and in “several other wind energy projects” Raphael said did not make it past the permit stage, or which hired a different consultant after Raphael’s statements.
Another says simply, “Admit that wind turbines get noisier as they age.”
Swanton Wind responded, “Denied.”
“Admit that the… make and model of turbine ultimately selected for the project will affect [its] sound levels.”
“Admitted. However… the project will be required to meet the sound standards established by the Board’s Temporary Rule on Sound Levels from Wind Generation dated 28 July 2016.”
Admit that the number of wind turbines will affect sound levels generated by the project.
Denied. “The sound level depends on the turbine selected and does not have a linear relationship with respect to a quantity of wind turbines.”
One question asked if the project analyzed, considered or modeled “shadow flicker from the moon.”
“No,” Swanton Wind responded, “because the moon is not a source of light.”
The Langs challenged Swanton Wind developer Travis Belisle’s testimony that Swanton Wind “will be able to re-sell quickly” any property purchased per the project’s offer to buy-out residents within 3,000 feet of a turbine who wish to move due to the project. Swanton Wind responded that developer Ashley Belisle researched home sales within 2.5 miles of Georgia Mountain Community Wind from June 2014 to July 2015, and found that four properties sold after 37, 29, 17 and 14 days on the market.
In perhaps the most illustrative question, the Langs asked Swanton Wind to “state precisely how the state of Vermont will benefit economically from your estimate of $28.1 million in avoided [greenhouse gas] emissions.”
“The economic benefits of reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions are of benefit to society as a whole, resulting in significant health benefits of cleaner air to the reduction of in the rate of global warming and its beneficial effects on the planet and mankind,” Swanton Wind responded. “Swanton Wind has not conducted an analysis that would allow it to state these benefits precisely.”
A second round of discovery comes next, followed by a round in which the tables are turned and Swanton Wind questions the other formally recognized participants in its PSB review.
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