Friday January 18, 2013

Over recent centuries it is clear that humans have been using petroleum-based products to such an extent that the residues are having negative long-range impacts on climate. Indeed, there are limits to how much fossil-based material the earth's crust is going to be able to provide. The energies of the future that we humans use on this earth will be derived from more natural sources such as wind, sun, geothermal, or biomass. Therefore it is imperative to favor the development of sources of energy that are not dependent on fossil fuels.

Here in Vermont, Searsburg Mountain was the only active wind-energy plant in the state for several years. When an expansion of this facility was first proposed, I was all for it. The 11 towers that Green Mountain Power installed there more than a decade ago to generate six megawatts have seemed successful and done little or no harm to habitat or anyone. This project is on private land, the former camp property of a Bennington lawyer.

Plans to expand along ridges to the northwest and southeast seemed logical enough, though that land is public, part of the Green Mountain National Forest. And that fact has produced lengthy bureaucratic delays because no wind-generating facilities had ever been built on National Forest land, so new policies had to be evolved.

But as specific plans have developed, by the big Spanish utility Iberdrola, serious complications have arisen and the whole scheme has mushroomed to such proportions that I can only think of the result as monstrous and very destructive.

Think of the Bennington Battle Monument, 306 feet high, historically the tallest structure in the rural state of Vermont. Set on a promontory in the village of Old Bennington, the monument can be seen from several miles away, and indeed has become a symbol of legendary significance, celebrating a key victory in the American Revolution. Its extraordinary height attracts 50,000 tourist visitors each year to this state historic site.

The basic problem with the Iberdrola proposal is that it involves not one but fifteen structures, each of which is far higher than the Bennington Battle Monument. Originally a height of 389 feet to the tip of the blade was proposed, but recently Iberdrola announced that it wants them to be another 20 feet higher than that. These would be not on a promontory but on top of a prominent ridge line and would be seen for many miles, and lighted at night for aviation safety. Such a series of structures will be nothing like Vermont has ever known. It's a matter of scale. This is not just a commercial application, it is industrial, really mega-industrial.

The turbines at the Lowell facility in northern Vermont are 459 feet to tip of blade. When they started up, residents for miles around complained of unbearable noise, variously described as "like a jet plane taking off" that never takes off, and "I thought at first they were testing the F-35 fighter, roaring right over the mountain." Residents as far away as six miles report hearing the noise indoors and out.

Several other serious concerns have arisen about the Deerfield project.

Fifteen 419-foot towers -- if the new height is approved -- would be adjacent to a National Forest Wilderness zone, the 5,020-acre George D. Aiken Wilderness. Congress does not designate an official Wilderness zones for trivial reasons. The Aiken Wilderness adjoins thousands more acres of wild and uninhabited territory, consisting largely of Green Mountain National Forest and also the lands originally taken by the New England Power Company for hydroelectric purposes, now owned by TransCanada Hydro, which operates the Somerset and Harriman reservoirs. This huge region, also known as Lamb Brook, with its tall unnamed mountains, deep valleys, and opportunities for undisturbed solitude or recreation, is the largest and best wild territory in southern Vermont and some of the best black bear habitat anywhere. Its integrity ought to be preserved.

Those who oppose the Deerfield Wind project point out that the Forest Service has violated the National Environmental Protection Act by failing to perform an analysis of the impact the wind project will have on the Aiken Wilderness, and that the noise and persistent massive visual presence of the fifteen huge towers will destroy the wilderness attributes of the Aiken Wilderness.

In addition, some less than ethical procedures were followed during development of the plans for this industrial wind project. The Forest Service has compromised the integrity of the National Environmental Protection Act by selecting a person to draft its environmental impact statement (EIS) who was also working for the project developer, Iberdrola. Those who read the project's applications will find six relatively lengthy instances of plagiarism where the words of the developer's agent were used again verbatim for the EIS. This is a disturbing conflict of interest.

Another important objection is the impact of the huge whirling blades on bats, especially in view of the known massive mortality in recent years of white-nose syndrome. The developers played down bat deaths based on a 2009 study that estimated one million bats had been killed in the Northeast by the white-nose syndrome. But new evidence in January 2012 by the Federal Fish & Wildlife Service concludes that 5.7 million to 6.7 million bats have died since 2009 and that white-nose syndrome has spread to 19 states and four Canadian provinces. Bats are vital to the natural ecology of any region.

I have decided to oppose this destructive project by joining with the litigation of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, an organization known for its solidity and attention to fundamental values. Meanwhile, it has been encouraging to learn of the efforts, notably by Senators Joe Benning and Bob Hartwell, to press for a moratorium on wind-energy projects in this state.

If all these concerns about the Deerfield wind project were widely realized, it is clear to me that they would demand serious redesign or relocation.

Tyler Resch of Shaftsbury is research librarian at the Bennington Museum, journalist, author of a dozen books on regional history and a former editor of the Bennington Banner .