Concerned Citizens to Save Roxbury seeks a public hearing on conflicting medical and technical information regarding wind farms’s licensing.
by Tux Turkel, staff writer
A citizens group is contesting last month’s state approval of a significant wind energy project near Rumford, citing, among other things, the potential health effects of noise from the turbines.
This week, Concerned Citizens to Save Roxbury appealed the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s approval of the Record Hill Wind Project. The group wants the DEP’s board to hold a public hearing to explore conflicting medical and technical information regarding the licensing of large wind turbine projects.
The appeal comes while Gov. John Baldacci is on a trade mission in Europe to promote Maine as an attractive place to develop wind power.
Maine already leads New England in wind generation. By law, the state has set a goal of developing 2,000 megawatts of wind power by 2015. That would be about one-tenth of New England’s peak demand on a winter day.
Maine already has 104 megawatts of capacity running at three sites: Mars Hill, Stetson Ridge and Freedom. Projects to generate another 162 megawatts are under construction in three other locations: Kibby Mountain, Stetson II and Vinalhaven.
In addition, permits have been issued for 101 megawatts of output at three sites, including 55 megawatts from the Record Hill project in Oxford County.
The projects are considered the vanguard of new, clean power that will cut Maine’s dependence on oil and natural gas, reduce air pollution and trim emissions associated with climate change. At the same time, concern exists that noise from industrial-scale wind farms too close to people can cause health problems ranging from sleep disturbance to headaches and dizziness.
Maine must do more to strike a balance between developing clean energy and protecting residents who live near the projects, said a Portland attorney who is representing the Roxbury group.
“If we’re going to promote wind power, at least explore the health effects,” said Rufus Brown, a former deputy attorney general.
The Record Hill project is being developed by a subsidiary of Brunswick-based Independence Wind LLC. The principals in the company are former Gov. Angus King and Robert Gardiner, a former director of the state Bureau of Parks and Lands and a past president of Maine Public Broadcasting.
The fears being raised in Roxbury are misplaced, Gardiner said Wednesday. The nearest homes would be 1 miles away, he said, well beyond where noise would approach the limit set by the state. In addition, the style of turbine blade associated with low-frequency noise problems is no longer being made.
“They’re afraid we’re going to exceed those levels, and we’re confident we won’t,” he said.
The project calls for 22 turbines atop 270-foot-tall towers along ridges in Roxbury and Byron. The citizens group, which includes property owners on Roxbury Pond, says the project would ruin the mountain scenery and generate noise.
“We believe the applicant has ignored widespread evidence of the potential for sleep disturbance and other health effects from the low-frequency noise emitted by these enormous machines,” they say in their appeal of the DEP’s approval Aug. 20.
Contained in the appeal is testimony from Dr. Michael Nissenbaum, a radiologist at Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent.
Nissenbaum has been studying health complaints of people who live near the Mars Hill wind farm in Aroostook County, which began operating in 2007. Some have reported sleep problems, headaches, dizziness and a possible rise in blood pressure, which they blame on persistent noise from the spinning turbines.
At issue is audible, low-frequency noise and noise below perceptible levels, known as “infrasound.” Maine law has a defined decibel limit that has been applied to wind projects, but critics questions whether that standard is adequate.
Maine’s current regulations are appropriate, said the state’s public health director.
In a recent position paper, Dr. Dora Anne Mills said she found no peer-reviewed medical or public health literature reporting adverse health effects from noise and vibrations, when turbines are properly located.
She also noted World Health Organization guidelines for nighttime noise levels, which are on par with the Maine standard. Mills also found no evidence of significant health effects from low-frequency noise.
“It’s a matter of distance,” she said Wednesday. “And from what I can tell, our regulations are protective of health.”>/p>
This month, the Maine Medical Association passed a resolution addressing wind energy and public health. It concluded that the state needs to modify its siting of grid-scale wind projects to reflect scientific evidence regarding potential health effects, and have adequate setbacks and noise rules.
But both Mills and Gardiner said that resolution, passed at the group’s annual meeting, ignored the recommendations of a public health committee that carefully studied the issue and voted against the statement.
It’s not clear how the Board of Environmental Protection, which has yet to review this week’s appeal, will act on it.
A public hearing is possible, said Cindy Bertocci, an executive analyst with the board. But the board made its decision by considering rules that were in effect at the time of the Record Hill application, she said. “The question of whether the rules are adequate is a separate one.”>/p>
A similar appeal of a wind energy proposal near Lincoln — the Rollins project — was denied recently, Bertocci said.
Local opposition to wind power presents a conflict for one of the state’s most vocal supporters of renewable energy, the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The group has spoken in favor of both Mars Hill and Record Hill.
Dylan Voorhees, the group’s clean energy director, said Mars Hill was “a learning experience.”>/p>
It’s unlikely that developers will again build as close to homes as they did there, he said. But finding the right balance between locating wind turbines far from people and realizing the state’s potential to be a major exporter of renewable power from the wind will be difficult.
“I don’t think we can get to those goals by having only projects that are out of sight, out of mind,” he said.