BAD AXE – Residents and some planning officials think that a safety manual belonging to a wind construction company will provide clues to the overall safety of the turbines.
The Huron County Planning Commission this week spent a lot of time debating disclosure of the Vestas manual, a copy of which has been provided to Jeff Smith, the county’s building and zoning administrator, by Sempra U.S. Gas & Power, which is overseeing construction of the Apple Blossom Wind Park.
Some county residents have been requesting for months that Vestas provide a copy of the manual that reportedly contains information about health and safety standards for those constructing wind turbines.
Concern springs from the fact that they are 3.45-megawatt turbines – the first of that size to be constructed in Huron County.
The county has recently received some complaints about noise produced by 1.6 megawatt turbines, and critics are afraid these problems could increase.
Sempra emailed a copy of the manual to Smith that was marked “confidential,” and a message was attached saying that the manual was not intended for wider distribution without the permission of the company.
Smith then emailed Vestas asking for wider distribution, and the company declined his request.
The planners voted 6-2 Wednesday night for Smith to send a formal request to the company so that the 550-page manual could be distributed to members of the planning commission.
Commissioner Robert Oakes and commission Chair Bernie Creguer voted no, and Commissioner Mary Babcock was absent.
Creguer and Oakes said it was a non-issue because the commission approved the application to build the Apple Blossom Wind Park two years ago.
“If you can’t change anything, you don’t need to know about it,” Creguer said.
“Once we pass it, it’s done,” Oakes added.
Commissioner Terry Heck said that “somebody is hiding something.”
“It doesn’t do a lot of good to have the manual if we can’t look at it,” Commissioner Ken Walker said.
Commission Vice Chair Robert McLean said that the commission should ask Sempra to “be the good neighbor that they claim to be.”
He thought that the planning commission, Huron County Board of Commissioners and Corporate Counsel Steve Allen should all have access to the manual.
Prior to the vote Allen said that anyone wanting a copy of the manual should submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the county, because the manual may contain trade secrets.
Allen said that if the county is sued in a FOIA request, Huron County Circuit Court could then make the decision about who is allowed to see the manual. He noted he didn’t want to walk the county into a lawsuit that could result in financial damages.
Allen added he would be comfortable with the distribution of the manual if Sempra released the county from liability.
Robin Luce-Herrmann, general counsel for the Michigan Press Association, told the Tribune that if Smith possesses the information as part of his official function, it is public record, but it may be protected under trade-secret-based provisions of FOIA.
According to Michigan law, the trade secrets or commercial information must be voluntarily provided to an agency for use in determining governmental policy, and would be exempt from FOIA if:
1. The information is submitted upon a promise of confidentiality by the public body.
2. The promise of confidentiality is authorized by the chief administrative officer of the public body (such as the planning commission chair) or by an elected official at the time the promise is made.
3. A description of the information is recorded by the public body within a reasonable time after it has been submitted.
All three criteria must be met to allow exemption.
If the planning commission is allowed access, the same applies, Luce-Herrmann said. The trade-secret provisions would have to apply if it is withheld from being public information.
Allen said that up to this point concerning the project, “everybody has followed the law.”
Heck and McLean were also concerned because the project will include seven turbines in one section.
“When I see seven turbines in one section, I am very concerned,” McLean said.
He said that, combined with the issue of a turbine being built in close proximity to the Scheurer Hospital helicopter landing pad means that “we’ve got a potential disaster here.”
The Michigan Aeronautic Commission and the Federal Aviation Association, however, have both cleared the turbine to be built.
In other business at Wednesday’s meeting:
• D & W Salvage of Lincoln Township was given a special approval use permit to construct a 50-by-100-foot office/warehouse building; and an 11-foot-by-80-foot truck scale and other improvements.
• Commissioner Charles Bumhoffer was recommended to the county commissioners to be a member of the Huron County Zoning Board of Appeals.
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