State board backs Lincoln turbine permit

Posted Aug. 06, 2009, at 9:34 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — State regulators rejected arguments Thursday that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection rushed through an application for a 40-turbine wind-energy facility in the Lincoln Lakes region.

The organization Friends of Lincoln Lakes had appealed the DEP decision to grant First Wind a permit for the facility, which is proposed for ridgelines in Burlington, Lee, Lincoln and Winn. Group members alleged that the DEP had ignored conflicting scientific evidence about the project’s potential impacts on local residents and wildlife.

But after a three-hour hearing on Thursday, the Board of Environmental Protection sided with the DEP and turned down the group’s requests for public hearings on the issue. Several board members acknowledged, however, that Maine may have to revisit its regulations on sound levels partly in response to ongoing concerns about noise from wind farms.

Massachusetts-based First Wind hopes to begin construction on the $130 million Rollins Mountain wind-energy project by summer or fall of 2010. The company, which also goes by the name Evergreen Wind Power in Maine, already operates industrial wind-energy facilities on Mars Hill in Aroostook County and on Stetson Mountain in northern Washington County and has several other projects in the pipeline.

The Rollins Mountain application was the first to be processed by the DEP under new rules designed to speed up the regulatory review of projects in areas deemed appropriate for wind power development.

But The Friends of Lincoln Lakes contends that those “expedited review” rules ended up robbing the public of a voice in the matter. The DEP turned down a request to hold public hearings on the application but did hold a public informational session.

Attorney Lynne Williams claimed the DEP as well as Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the state’s public health director, arbitrarily dismissed scientific evidence that sound and low-frequency vibrations from the spinning turbines can harm the health of nearby residents. Some residents near First Wind’s Mars Hill facility claim low-frequency vibrations from the turbines disturb their sleep, affect their health and diminish their quality of life.

The issue of health impacts from turbine noise is still a matter of scientific debate in the U.S.

Williams also cited letters and memos from biologists raising concerns about the 400-foot-tall turbines’ affects on birds — including federally protected bald eagles — as well as bats and other wildlife.

“If you have questions about the scientific information in this application, please schedule a public hearing so that the experts can come and be questioned,” Williams told the board.

But an attorney for First Wind as well as representatives of the DEP and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife described the regulatory review as thorough and comprehensive. Biologists said the project, if constructed as planned, should not have significant impacts on wildlife.

Consultants hired by First Wind to perform sound models testified that noise from the spinning blades, as heard at nearby homes, should fall within Maine’s most restrictive standards of 45 decibels at night and 55 decibels during the day.

“We don’t deny there are impacts both to the plant and animal environment and to the human environment,” said Juliet Browne, an attorney with Verrill Dana representing First Wind. But Browne said First Wind has worked hard to minimize those impacts.

The board’s unanimous decision was not popular among many audience members, some of whom began leaving as the fate of the appeal became clear. One audience member screamed, “Whitewash,” just after the unanimous vote was announced.

Friends member Brad Blake said First Wind has acknowledged that they have not conducted bird studies on Rollins South. Blake said he believes the project was rushed through, with the collusion of local officials, despite many unanswered questions.

“That’s not protecting the environment,” Blake said. “Protecting the environment is knowing what you’re going to do and then knowing what the impact is.”

Williams said the organization could file a court appeal of the board’s decision and will continue to fight issuance of an Army Corps of Engineers permit for the project.

First Wind officials said they were pleased that the board reaffirmed the DEP’s decision.

“A supportive vote from a citizen board such as the BEP is particularly meaningful as it underscores the project’s economic and environmental benefits to the region and the people of Maine,” the company said in a written statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with all the permitting agencies and the surrounding communities to make the Rollins Wind project a reality, which will increase Maine’s sources for both clean, wind energy and quality in-state jobs.”

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