Local voices quashed in utility siting process
Credit: Pamela Atwater, Commentary | Lockport Union-Sun & Journal | Mar 16, 2022 | www.lockportjournal.com ~~
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There is a narrative being repeated to New Yorkers that the new Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) will take a hard look at renewable energy projects and respond to community concerns. Recent articles and editorials claim that community groups have a large impact on these decisions and can influence the outcome. Not so. ORES cares about one thing: approving renewable energy projects. Based on first-hand experience with the new ORES process, Save Ontario Shores can report that ORES is not sympathetic to local concerns, and does not provide a forum for the local community and government to raise their concerns.
The key point to keep in mind, which appears to have been conveniently forgotten, is that ORES was created at the urging of former Governor Cuomo to eliminate the opportunity for community opposition to renewable energy mega-projects. Under the old Article 10 process, the State Siting Board was required to offer meaningful opportunities for public participation. This resulted in the worst projects facing serious opposition. Although not a single project application was denied by the Siting Board, community opposition resulted in complaints to the Governor’s office – and we have the FOIL documents to prove it. In response to the industry’s tantrum, Governor Cuomo misused the opaque state budgeting process to replace the Siting Board with ORES, without public knowledge or debate. At the urging of renewable energy lobbyists, the mandate for meaningful public participation integral to the Article 10 process was stripped entirely from the ORES legislation.
The reduced emphasis on public participation in ORES proceedings manifests itself in various ways. Intervenor funding available to community groups was cut in half, which as a practical matter eliminates the opportunity to retain the attorneys and experts needed to raise legitimate concerns. The time allotted to hire experts and perform studies has decreased drastically. The review process was inverted to start with a draft siting permit that is presumed to address all issues before any parties have even been given an opportunity to raise their concerns. Hearings are no longer offered as of right, and it is nearly impossible to gain party status in the proceeding. Not even the host town is guaranteed party status, as evidenced by the ORES denial of party status to the Town of Barre in the Heritage Wind proceeding.
Despite this reality, the Heritage Wind project has been touted as an example of how well the ORES process is working to involve citizens. After all, six turbines were removed from the Heritage Wind project to protect migrating birds near the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. But the reality is that the six turbines were removed despite a failure to include local citizen voices, not because of their involvement. We know because we stood with the citizens that tried, and failed, to be heard.
The community group Clear Skies Above Barre (CSAB) retained renowned expert Dr. Shawn Smallwood to help the state address the issue of renewable energy and bird fatality, but was denied party status and prohibited from submitting expert testimony. The group wasn’t even allowed to question the developer’s witnesses about their ridiculous position that wind turbines pose no threat to wildlife.
Nonetheless, a hearing occurred in the Heritage Wind case because a federal agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), submitted a letter during the comment period stating that the project developer should consider an alternate location or at least remove the most egregious turbines from the project to protect migrating birds. ORES and the Department of Environmental Conservation were parties and, fortunately for the birds, both agreed with the USFWS assessment. Again, to be clear, the public, community groups, and the host town were denied the opportunity to participate as parties to the proceeding.
Beyond the issue of impact on birds, ORES’ refusal to grant party status to any local party eliminated the opportunity to raise other issues of concern. The ORES process deprived the host community of the opportunity to have a hearing on visual impacts, property value impacts, noise impacts, sufficiency of setbacks, visual screening, and the sufficiency of fundamentally flawed studies performed by Apex that appeared designed to obscure the true potential impacts of the project.
Yes, ORES moved six turbines because of the threat they pose to birds. But ORES also ignored every other concern raised by the local community. The ORES process is not designed or implemented in a manner that takes local concerns, or even local laws, into account.
Pamela Atwater of Barker is the president of Save Ontario Shores.
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