LOWVILLE – For the fourth time in the state and the first time in the north country, an Article 10 environmental certification process has come to an end, resulting in Number Three Wind Farm LLC being granted the certificate by the state Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment, although a number of conditions need to be met before construction can begin.
The 30-minute meeting held in Albany Tuesday morning and via webcast in the siting board’s New York City Office and for public viewing was led by the siting board Chair John B. Rhodes.
Few of the final conditions placed on the certification were included in the summary of the siting board’s final decision to grant the Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need read by the Article 10 process’s Head Judge Maureen Leary, the exception being the sound level that must be respected by the wind farm.
Judge Leary said because it was a level that was accepted for the last project approved through the Article 10 process – Baron Winds in Chautauqua County – the siting board accepted the 45-decibel turbine noise level threshold for participants not involved with the project and 55 decibels for those who are, as set by Number Three.
This was contrary to the recommendations made by the state Department of Public Service staff in late August which based its 42-decibel recommendation on the World Health Organization’s 2018 report on the negative health impact of turbine noise on health above an average of 40 decibels over an eight-hour period.
The Public Service staff had also noted that the 42-decibel level was made a certificate condition for Eight Point Wind in Steuben County, which was approved in August, a month before Baron Winds.
The siting board did leave room for different sound levels in the future based on the “evolving scientific area related to human exposure to noise.”
Two siting board members, Louis Alexander, an alternate for Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, and Leslie Sheldon, one of the two community members chosen to be on the board for this project only, asked for clarification on some of the certificate conditions.
Mr. Alexander asked if the grassland bird habitat plan designed to lower the project’s impact on the birds is “truly more nuanced” with a “more sophisticated approach… over time” than the usual plan used in other wind projects in which three acres of new habitat must be created for every one that is destroyed by the project.
Ms. Leary confirmed it was, but didn’t go into detail on what those “nuances” were.
Mr. Alexander also wanted to be certain that the Letter of Credit included in the conditions would be enough to protect the towns in the project, Lowville and Harrisburg, during “decommissioning” at the end of the project’s lifespan.
Ms. Leary said the letter will protect the towns financially with assistance by a decommissioning cost analysis that won’t include the price of salvaged materials, to be reviewed every five years and overseen by the towns.
The enforcement of the Public Service staff recommended condition requiring Number Three to install an aircraft lighting detection system concerned Ms. Sheldon, but Ms. Leary said the siting board has left the decision about the system’s necessity to the U.S. Department of Defense, being that the lighting issue impacts Fort Drum’s operations in the area.
She also noted existing Maple Ridge and Copenhagen wind farms have the traditional red blinking lights were approved by Fort Drum and so may be sufficient for Number Three.
The Public Service staff had recommended the consideration of the advanced lighting system to prevent the taller turbines being used for Number Three from interfering with Fort Drum, but also as a tool to decrease the visual impact of the project at night as the number of turbines in the area grows.
Despite some of the Siting Board decisions being in their favor and being awarded the coveted certificate, Number Three Wind Farm Project Manager Marguerite Wells said in a phone interview after the meeting that the certification did not guarantee Invenergy, Number Three’s parent company, would move forward with the project.
“One of the fundamental illusions is that this certificate is like a building permit,” Ms. Wells said.
The actual “order” voted upon in the meeting containing all of the final certificate conditions and requirements of the Site Engineering and Environment Plan, or SEEP – all of which must be addressed in order for the company to be allowed to proceed with construction – was not made available to Ms. Wells and Number Three until it was posted for the public online at about 1:30 p.m.
Ms. Wells said that the project’s federal Production Tax Credit is in its “sunset phase,” scheduled to lose value if Number Three isn’t completed by the end of 2020, a situation that will impact the project’s finances.
She also said that the Cassadaga Wind project, which was the first project approved through Article 10, received its certificate almost two years ago, in January 2018, and still has not begun construction as the process to fulfill conditions continues.
“The devil’s in the details,” Ms. Wells said, “And the SEEP is a massive undertaking.”
Ultimately, she said, the contents of the over 200-page final document will determine how her company will proceed.
The 105.8-megawatt wind project will consist of 31 turbines, 13 in the town of Lowville and 18 in the town of Harrisburg.
The certificate was granted with a “yes” vote by all siting board members with the exception of Ms. Sheldon, who said she believes “the negative impact outweighs the benefits” of the project.
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