AUGUSTA — The Maine Board of Environmental Protection rejected an appeal against approval of the Spruce Mountain Wind Project on Thursday by a 5-1 vote.
For the Massachusetts-based firm Patriot Renewables, it was another hurdle cleared toward building a 10-turbine wind farm in Woodstock with a maximum output of 20 megawatts.
Denise Hall, vice president of the group Friends of Spruce Mountain, said in an e-mail that her group had hoped the board would deny the permit because the turbines were so close to homes. She said her group had yet to decide whether to take the case to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on the grounds that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection should have held a public hearing.
At Tuesday's hearing, Portland attorney Rufus Brown, representing Friends of Spruce Mountain, argued that after the noise problems and health problems allegedly connected to turbines, opponents to the project deserve a public hearing where experts could speak about the health hazards of putting wind turbines near Woodstock and Sumner residents.
Gordon Smith, an attorney for Patriot Renewables, said the firm had already endured an eight-month approval process by the Maine DEP that included two time extensions. He called it “fundamentally unfair” for the firm to have to endure another application process before starting the project.
Dawn Hallowell, the DEP project manager who approved the Spruce Mountain project, also spoke in defense of the rigorous study her department conducted before granting a land-use permit to Patriot Renewables.
The board agreed and voted 5-1 to accept the findings of the DEP study. Only board member Lissa Widoff voted against the majority, calling it a difficult decision but noting how the models to estimate noise output were admittedly not an exact science.
Hallowell responded to Friends of Spruce Mountain's claims that birds and bats could be affected by pointing to studies by Tetra Tech of Portland, included in the permit, of the bird and bat populations.
Friends of Spruce Mountain also argued that the turbines would affect the view from Concord Pond.
Hallowell responded that the DEP was only required to assess the impact from ponds designated as “great ponds” in “Maine's Finest Lakes, the Results of the Maine Lakes Study," published by the Maine State Planning Office. Concord Pond was not included in that list.
Brown presented evidence on the annoyance factor of low-frequency wind turbine noise. He cited a study that found low-frequency noise is annoying and can cause health problems at a much lower level than other industrial noises such as cars and trains and argued that even 45 decibels may be too loud at night.
He also argued that the decibel models accounted only for the noise of the turbine motors, not for “wind shear,” the repetitive thumping that results when turbine blades cut through layers of wind moving at different speeds.
Warren Brown, owner of EnRad Consulting, and a consultant to the DEP in their permitting process, which deals with noise issues, pointed out that wind shear is more common closer to sea level in places such as Vinalhaven, but not as common in mountainous areas like Spruce Mountain.
Smith said that in addition to conservative scientific models used to predict noise levels, the DEP order also included a provision requiring that Patriot Renewables collect data at permanently-established sites and to operate a toll-free complaint hot line where residents can report loud turbine noise.
The firm must collect data on the noise and submit it to the DEP. If the DEP finds they are exceeding noise limits, Patriot must reduce the noise levels of the turbines. Smith called it a “belt and suspenders approach” to turbine noise concerns.
Rufus Brown said it wasn't enough to let potentially problematic turbines be built before dealing with the consequences.
He took offense to Smith's assertion that it was unfair to submit Patriot to another hearing. “That is exactly upside-down,” Brown said. “It is fundamentally unfair to the people in this neighborhood to this project ... when there are so many uncertainties.”
Brown said he represents clients in Vinalhaven experiencing health problems caused by noise from the wind turbines there. “I have one client who had a heart attack that's attributable to them because of the stress,” he said.
“People have seriously, seriously suffered,” Brown said.
After the hearing, Smith complimented the board for arriving at “the position that was supplied by the facts.”
Brown said he wasn't surprised by the outcome but said he was pleased that one board member was moved by turbine noise concerns, which he called a new development.
“I am encouraged by the learning curve,” he said.