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Questions on permit violations raised at Lowell wind project hearing

Environmental groups have questioned whether the state’s largest commercial wind farm is skirting permit rules.

The issue came up during a hearing this month and led to calls for independent monitoring of nearby water quality.

“It sounds like there’s photographic evidence that permit conditions are not being met,” Mark Whitworth, president of the group Energize Vermont, said at the hearing June 16. “It sounds like monitoring is not being conducted in a broad enough way, and it sounds like Green Mountain Power gets to choose the people that monitor their own work.”

Green Mountain Power wants to renew the stormwater drainage permit on its Kingdom Community Wind project, a collection of 21 wind turbines on Lowell Mountain in Orleans County.

The company applied in January for an amended permit, and the Department of Environmental Conservation issued a draft of a new permit in March.

Those moves drew letters from two nonprofit organizations, Vermonters for a Clean Environment and Native Fish Coalition. Both said the permit should not be approved without greater oversight.

The application focused on “minor” relocations of four level spreaders, devices that aim to diffuse and evenly distribute flows by turning runoff water into thin, flat sheets. The level spreaders were an experimental approach and, as part of the altered permit, Green Mountain Power also wanted the state to recognize the design as a successful alternative.

The wind farm, controversial since inception, again drew criticism at the hearing.

“We need, in my opinion, independent experts, not experts picked by the company,” said Justin Lindholm, a former member of the state Fish & Wildlife Board who has worked with Vermonters for a Clean Environment.

“I’ve seen things that are very questionable up there to monitor these systems,” Lindholm said.

As an example, Lindholm cited overflow in the level spreaders. Too much water has been coming out of the devices, he said, eroding the forest floor and raising the root hairs of surrounding trees.

Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, criticized the state for allowing Green Mountain Power to monitor only three of its 31 level spreaders during a three-year study of the devices. In the draft permit, regulators used the results of that study to say the wind farm’s drainage system met standards.

Smith said she does not understand why the wind farm has not been opened up to a “real investigation.”

Without monitoring from independent experts, not those hired by the company, she said, “it’s almost looking like you’re trying to cover something up.”

Activists are particularly concerned about wild native brook trout that live in the small streams around Lowell Mountain. Those fish need the coldest water they can get, and advocates worry that the removal of forest canopy and sediments in poorly controlled runoff could harm the fish.

Another issue at the hearing involved using felled trees to control stormwater flow downhill from level spreaders – a method not approved in the permit.

Questioned on that point, state environmental analyst Kevin Burke characterized the logs as a maintenance effort rather than a stormwater management method on their own.

“If logs are then placed downstream of level spreaders to prevent channelized flow, is that not a further treatment approach and is that not something that should be acknowledged in the engineering plans?” asked John Brabant, a member of Vermonters for a Clean Environment and the Calais Selectboard.

Brabant, a former state environmental analyst, said it seems like the use of logs should be part of the permit.

“I think you make some points, John, but we’re talking about a 150-foot, heavily vegetated forest cover where trees and logs might be placed on their own by Mother Nature – things might move around,” Burke said in response.

Burke said he believes the project has complied with its permit and that the logs are being used to ensure the level spreaders work as intended.

Speakers also described seeing aerial photos of the wind project, which show that wet ponds – basins for stormwater to run into – were dry and not working properly, another potential conflict with permit requirements.

Smith, president of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, joined others in calling for cooperation among Green Mountain Power, state agencies and community members to increase monitoring.

“It would truly benefit everyone to work together on evaluating the site in a fair and honest way, which I do not believe has happened, and it’s time for it to happen,” she said. “Right now, nobody has any reason to trust either the Agency of Natural Resources or Green Mountain Power” with regard to this permit.

Officials have no timeline for making a decision on the draft permit, Burke said this week, and they aren’t bound by a deadline.

He said a decision could take at least a month, given the number of comments officials need to review.

As of 2019, the $168 million wind installation generated enough electricity to power about 24,000 homes.

The facility received a stormwater discharge permit in 2011, which was renewed administratively in 2016, according to a letter that VHB, an engineering company, sent to state officials Jan. 6 on behalf of Green Mountain Power.

The project discharges stormwater from more than 27 acres of impervious surface – structures and ground cover where water cannot be absorbed. Those areas include gravel crane pads at each turbine, gravel roads and parking areas, and an operations and maintenance building.

Fifty discharge devices divert stormwater west to Lake Champlain from branches of the Missisquoi River and east to Lake Memphremagog through tributaries of the Black River.