Wind turbine noise recommendation unlikely to end debate

Posted Aug. 07, 2011, at 6:41 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 08, 2011, at 5:04 a.m.

Staff with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection have waded into the debate over noise from commercial wind turbines by recommending a slight reduction in the decibel level that could trigger a noise violation for wind farms located near homes or businesses.

But the recommendation — expected to be presented to the Maine Board of Environmental Protection on Monday — appears unlikely to satisfy a vocal group of activists who insist poorly sited wind farms threaten Maine’s public health and natural beauty.

DEP staff will present two options to the Board of Environmental Protection during a meeting this Monday.

The first will essentially maintain the status quo in terms of allowable noise levels from wind turbines near neighboring houses and other “protected locations,” allowing up to 55 decibels during the day and 45 decibels between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. The draft rules do, however, seek to standardize the measurement and reporting process.

The second option would also keep the 55-decibel daytime limit in protected locations but would reduce the nighttime limit to 42 decibels. The second option contains the same recommendations on the measurement process.

Ever since wind power companies began eyeing Maine for developments about a decade ago, the Department of Environmental Protection has applied a decades-old noise standard to wind energy projects.

Critics of Maine’s push to become a major player in the wind power industry have argued, however, that the state needed rules specific to the unique characteristics of wind turbines. After gathering enough petition signatures, Friends of Maine’s Mountains filed paperwork to force the Board of Environmental Protection to begin the rule-making process to address wind turbine noise.

Chris O’Neil, a consultant who works with Friends of Maine’s Mountains, said Sunday that the organization was not impressed with the DEP staff recommendation. O’Neil said his organization presented “overwhelming evidence” documenting public health problems from wind turbine noise at those levels.

“We’re not too pleased,” O’Neil said. “The two options being presented by the staff are the status quo and status quo-light.”

Instead, his organization has argued that 35 decibels at night is a more appropriate limit in Maine given the types of quiet, rural locations where wind turbines are being sighted.

Turbine noise has emerged as arguably the biggest public relations headache for the wind power industry in Maine, although some critics also strongly object to the sight of the 400-foot-tall structures on ridgelines and mountaintops. The total number of turbines operating in Maine is approaching 200, with many more in the permitting process.

A relatively small number of residents living near existing wind farms have complained of lost sleep and physical sickness as a result of turbine noise, low-frequency noise or vibrations as well as sunlight or shadow flicker caused by the spinning blades. Some say the projects have ruined the value of their homes.

Such complaints surfaced soon after Maine’s first wind farm — a 28-turbine facility in the Aroostook County town of Mars Hill — began operating more than five years ago. And in late July, several neighbors upset with the three-turbine Fox Islands Wind project on the island of Vinalhaven filed suit against the DEP, claiming senior officials have failed to enforce Maine’s noise regulations against the developer.

Overall, however, wind energy continues to enjoy overwhelming support from the Maine public, according to recent polls. And proponents of the industry point out that while most investment dried up or slowed down due to the economy, wind power companies have invested an estimated $1 billion in Maine in recent years.

In oral testimony to the board last month and written submissions, industry representatives warned that the rules could negatively impact wind power development and, therefore, job creation in Maine. They pointed out that municipalities are already free to adopt noise or setback limits more stringent than the state’s.

They also urged the board to take more time to consider expert testimony on the complex scientific issues surrounding noise and potential health impacts.

“It is critical in setting public policy … the board act on the basis of sound science and has the benefit of a process that allows for informed decision-making,” wrote the team of attorneys for the firm Verrill Dana, representing the wind energy industry, in a July 18 submission.

“Unfortunately, the rule-making process, which here included a single day of public hearing, limited time for presentation of expert testimony and no opportunity for cross-examination of experts, may not facilitate the board’s understanding of the technical issues that lie at the heart of the proposed changes.”

The board is expected to discuss the draft recommendation and could suggest several changes. The staff recommendation would then be posted for public comment.

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