DEP increases scrutiny of fire safety at Maine’s proposed wind farms

A fire on Jan. 23, 2013, destroyed this turbine at TransCanada's Kibby Mountain wind farm.
Jim Anderberg
A fire on Jan. 23, 2013, destroyed this turbine at TransCanada's Kibby Mountain wind farm.
Posted June 04, 2013, at 10:31 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is raising more questions about fire safety standards at wind farms proposed in the state.

The increased scrutiny is in part a reaction to a fire in January that destroyed a $4-million turbine at TransCanada’s wind farm on Kibby Mountain in northern Franklin County, according to Mark Bergeron, director of the DEP’s Division of Land Resource Regulation.

The blaze, which was first reported in the Bangor Daily News on April 23, has raised questions about fire safety standards at wind farms and whether sufficient response plans have been coordinated between wind farm developers and local and state emergency responders.

“Certainly since the Kibby fire we have taken a second look at the issue and that’s what’s raised some of these questions,” Bergeron said Monday.

On May 29, the DEP reopened the public record on the Bowers Wind farm project so that it could ask the developer, Boston-based First Wind, for additional details on proposed fire safety standards. Bowers is a 16-turbine, 48-megawatt wind power farm that First Wind wants to build in eastern Penobscot County.

The DEP held a public hearing on the Bowers project on April 30 and May 1, just a few days after the BDN published the story about the Kibby Mountain turbine fire.

Bergeron said emails requesting similar information were sent to other developers with wind farm proposals under consideration by the DEP.

The DEP’s additional questions for First Wind on the Bowers project concern the lack of a fire suppression system in one of the turbines being considered by the company, how “regular maintenance and inspection … reduces fire risk in wind turbines,” and how fire safety standards for wind farms developed by the National Fire Protection Association apply to the project.

In addition, the DEP has asked for a copy of the project’s fire protection plan, which First Wind references in its Bowers application, but was not required to provide. The department also wants the company to “provide written notification to the project manager or appropriate Bureau of Land and Water Quality staff within 48 hours of any fire event that causes one or more turbines to not generate electricity,” according to the email.

The DEP doesn’t currently have the ability to require developers to make such a 48-hour notification, Bergeron said, but it’s requesting it. In the case of the Kibby Mountain fire, a DEP spokeswoman said the department wasn’t notified about the fire until seven days after the incident, and even then the department only learned about the fire from an oil and hazardous spill report that the company filed because turbines contain lubricating oil.

John Lamontagne, a spokesman for First Wind, declined to respond to the DEP’s questions in detail before the company filed its official response, which it plans to do later this week.

“First Wind takes safety at our projects incredibly seriously,” Lamontagne said in an email. “Fires in wind turbines are extremely rare in the industry.”

He said the company is considering two turbines — one from Vestas and one from Siemens — at its proposed wind farms in Maine, including the Bowers project, the Bingham Wind Project, and the Hancock Wind Project.

“The turbines each have sophisticated systems in place designed to prevent malfunctions, overheating and fires,” he wrote. “In our response to the DEP, we will provide detail on how those systems work.”

He said once the company decides which turbines would be used at each location, “we will develop an extensive emergency response plan for each site and provide trainings with project staff and local fire responders.”

Applicants such as First Wind have been “fairly receptive” to the DEP’s additional scrutiny of fire safety issues, Bergeron said.

“We haven’t received a lot of negative comments from applicants at this point,” Bergeron said. “They’ve certainly been open to describing how the design, operation and maintenance of these turbines in general keep the risk of fire safety low.”

Gary Campbell, president of the Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes Watershed, the main opponent of First Wind’s Bowers project, said his group’s chief concern had been with the turbines blocking scenic views. But after the BDN article about the Kibby turbine fire came out, fire safety issues, which surfaced at public hearing on April 30 and in filings with the DEP, came on the radar.

Campbell admits turbine fires may be rare, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an important issue that deserves more attention.

“The opportunity is there for a catastrophic forest fire,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s likely. I have no way of knowing how likely a fire is to begin, but I’m fairly confident that if it started under the right conditions it would be a catastrophe.”

To ensure that consistent fire safety standards are adhered by Maine’s wind farms, Campbell requested in a DEP filing May 17 that the Maine Forest Service’s Forest Protection Branch be required to review the fire safety standards for all wind farms in Maine, and certify that they are adequate and meet a predetermined set of standards.

“That’s certainly something the Forest Protection Branch could review, just like the Army Corps of Engineers and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife review certain sections of the application,” Campbell said. “So why we haven’t we done that with fire danger that can directly impact the lives of Maine citizens?”

Campbell is glad the DEP is asking more questions concerning fire prevention, but whether the increased scrutiny will lead to stiffer regulations governing wind farm proposals remains to be seen, he said.

“It’s gratifying they’re doing this, but as to how they’ll handle this information, I don’t have an inside track on that,” he said. “It’s nice they’re listening, though.”

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