ELLSWORTH, Maine — Several homeowners who live near a wind-energy facility on Vinalhaven are suing the state, alleging political appointees within the LePage administration interfered with a noise complaint case filed with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Superior Court in Kennebec County, members of the group Fox Islands Wind Neighbors and other individuals are asking judges to nullify a June 2011 DEP order against the wind power project developer. Instead, the group wants the court to institute an earlier version developed by DEP staff that imposed tougher compliance requirements.
The case stems from neighbors’ complaints that the three turbines operated by Fox Islands Wind have routinely exceeded noise levels allowed under the facility’s DEP permit.
The community-supported Fox Islands Wind facility began operating in October 2009 as a way to reduce high electricity costs on the islands of Vinalhaven and North Haven. Supporters claim the facility has helped lower costs and continues to enjoy the strong backing of most island residents.
Last September, a consultant working for DEP said data suggest that the turbines were generating more noise than allowed under certain weather conditions and therefore should be modified to avoid affecting nearby residents at night.
Two months later, the DEP directed Fox Islands Wind to submit revised operational plans to avoid sound levels exceeding 45 decibels during wind shear events. But the company appealed and the order since has been rewritten substantially.
The lawsuit by Fox Islands Wind Neighbors contends that three successive DEP commissioners in the LePage administration — Darryl Brown, Jim Brooks and Patricia Aho — went against the department’s professional staff recommendations and weakened the compliance order so that it likely would not require major modifications to the project.
Brown served as commissioner briefly before resigning because of possible conflicts of interest with the federal Clean Water Act. Brooks, a longtime DEP employee, stepped down in June to work in the private sector. Aho, who the group points out previously worked for the law firm that represented Fox Islands Wind, is now acting commissioner.
“First DEP agreed with the neighbors that Fox Islands Wind was violating state noise regulations,” Alan Farago, a neighbor to the project and plaintiff in the suit, said in a statement. “Then with the turn of the political screw, DEP began ratcheting back the recommendations of its consultant and finally backed out of the decision by its own regulatory staff.”
The lawsuit accuses Aho of failing to enforce Maine’s noise standards and issuing an order that was “affected by political bias and prejudice, unsupported by substantial evidence and is arbitrary and capricious.”
Samantha DePoy-Warren, spokeswoman for the DEP, declined to comment on the lawsuit at this time.
“The department is going to decline to comment on this 22-page complaint that we’ve only just seen a copy of until we have time to review it thoroughly in consultation with the Maine Attorney General’s Office,” DePoy-Warren said.
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, also declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Noise from commercial wind farms has emerged as a major issue in recent years as Maine officials work toward a goal of generating 2,000 megawatts of electricity from wind power. Maine is New England’s largest producer of wind energy, approaching 200 commercial wind turbines spinning on mountaintops and ridgelines with more on the way.
Despite some neighbors’ complaints about noise from the turbines, wind power remains popular with the overwhelming majority of Mainers, according to recent polls.
A group of residents has petitioned the Board of Environmental Protection — the rule-making arm of the DEP — to develop new noise standards for wind power projects. The board is expected to continue work on the petition during its meeting this Thursday.