By Brian Dubie
Vermont’s Department of Public Service (DPS) has concluded that “after extensive review of a homeowner’s own sound measurements and analysis, . . . the indoor sound pressure levels at the homeowner’s residence” may have violated the state’s noise standards, justifying an investigation into Vermont Wind’s alleged compliance with the noise monitoring plan it submitted to the Public Service Board (PSB). In the comments it released on Oct. 14, 2015, the DPS generally agreed with the data already gathered by the homeowner, which shows a clear violation of Conditions 8 and 9 of the Certificate of Public Good (CPG).
By way of background, the homeowner, Paul Brouha, lives on a family farm that abuts the Sheffield Wind Project, which is a utility-scale electric generation facility consisting of 16 industrial wind turbines owned by Vermont Wind/SunEdison/Terraform (collectively, “Vermont Wind”) in Sheffield, Vt. After Vermont Wind’s noise monitoring expert found no violation of the CPG in response to Mr. Brouha’s complaints that the noise in his home exceeded the 30 dBA (Leq)(1) noise standard, Mr. Brouha hired a noise expert, at his personal expense, to conduct independent noise tests. The report (NPC Report) demonstrates that Vermont Wind’s expert, Hessler Associates, Inc., failed to conduct testing as required by the CPG and that Vermont Wind knowingly and continually violated the CPG noise standard.
In April 2014, the PSB referred to the DPS Mr. Brouha’s complaint and the NPC Report for an investigation of Vermont Wind’s position that Hessler’s measurements and data of the noise levels at Mr. Brouha’s home did not indicate a violation of the CPG noise standard. The DPS retained an independent sound expert, Jim Barnes of Acentech, to review the NPC Report and make recommendations for further steps.
On July 1, 2014, Acentech performed the same measurements at Mr. Brouha’s home as in the NPC Report. More than 15 months later, on Oct. 14, 2015, the DPS filed with the PSB its long-awaited report from Acentech, with comments from DPS Special Counsel Aaron Kisicki, finding the NPC Report correctly establishes the interior noise levels at Mr. Brouha’s home are greater than 30 dBA (Leq)(1). According to Acentech’s report, it is reasonable to conclude the interior noise levels at Mr. Brouha’s home exceeded the CPG noise standard by as much as 14 percent of the time.
What is troubling and causes serious concern to Vermonters in Readsboro, Searsburg, Windham, Grafton, Swanton and Irasburg, who are faced with the possible construction of industrial wind turbines in their communities, is the recommendation from the DPS that the PSB “accept additional comments from Vermont Wind and Mr. Brouha in response to this filing” and “initiate an investigation into whether additional sound monitoring is appropriate at the Brouha residence.”
The data collected by all the experts is clear — any which way the DPS wants to look at the situation, at the end of the day, Vermont Wind is in violation of the CPG and the time for comments and an investigation is over.
The DPS already took more than 15 months to conduct its investigation and to analyze the data collected by its independent expert. Acentech confirmed the same end result as the NPC Report, which is that Vermont Wind’s operation of the Sheffield wind turbines is NOT in compliance with the CPG. The DPS’s interpretation that Vermont Wind “may have” violated the noise standard and subsequent recommendation for vague and open-ended action provide Vermont Wind with an opportunity to repeat the testing at Mr. Brouha’s home and to once again systematically and knowingly manipulate energy production to avoid reportable violations.
For the rest of our communities, the DPS’s unwillingness to arrive at a clear conclusion in Mr. Brouha’s case also delays any justice for the other citizens of Vermont facing construction of new wind farms. Residents of Swanton are especially concerned about the ineffective enforcement of the current noise standard, as Swanton Industrial Wind proposes to put larger wind turbines than Sheffield much closer to Vermont families. Swanton Industrial Wind proposes to put seven 499-foot industrial wind turbines within a mile of 134 Vermont families. Windham’s Select Board has identified 27 percent of the town’s family homes are within one mile of Iberdrola’s proposed wind turbines, with nearly 70 percent within two miles of proposed wind turbine locations. In Searsburg, Iberdrola’s plan to use larger wind turbines with longer blades than originally approved in the 2009 CPG has led Intervenor Lisa Linowes of Industrial Wind Action to request that the PSB hold a hearing on the noise levels produced by the change in turbines.
Noise is also an issue before the PSB at one of Vermont’s other operating industrial wind projects. Just recently, on Oct. 16, 2015, the DPS filed a letter with the PSB, responding to noise complaints by neighbors of the Georgia Mountain Wind project. In that case, over the objection of the developer, the DPS determined further action was warranted and recommended to the PSB that further analysis should be required. The DPS’s pattern of delay is also seen in the Green Mountain Power project in Lowell. After taking nearly a year to determine there was in fact a violation of the noise standard, the DPS hired Acentech to conduct continuous sound monitoring to determine the steps necessary to enforce the CPG. More than two years after the violation occurred and six months since the onset of continuous monitoring, the DPS has not yet reported any results to the PSB or proposed any relief.
A reasonable solution does not require further delay. Other states, such as Colorado, demonstrate it is possible to continuously monitor industrial turbines. (See http://webtrak5.bksv.com/den3.) To ensure compliance with noise standards, it is reasonable to require the developers and project owners to pay a monitoring and enforcement fee.
When the DPS does in fact determine a wind project regularly exceeds the established noise standard, say at night for instance, it is possible to shut down operations during the night and weekends, as has been required by a Massachusetts Superior Court Judge for two wind turbines in Falmouth, or to compensate neighbors who are impacted by these violations. The PSB should stay the approval of construction of industrial wind turbine projects until such time as it determines the operating standards do in fact protect the health of turbine neighbors.
Brian Dubie of Fairfield served as Vermont’s lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2011.