Some historical notes on the Vinalhaven wind turbine noise controversy

The Acoustic Ecology Institute writes on the turbine noise controversy on Vinalhaven and concludes, “the underlying fact is that even the allowed 45dB is too loud for many of those living within a half mile or so.”

The underlying fact in Vinalhaven: history matters.

Before the Vinalhaven wind turbines began to spin, the town had implemented stronger provisions to protect people from wind turbine noise — perhaps to attract a government grant. Later, the town lowered the standard, and now Fox Islands Wind has a standard that is unenforceable. (please click ‘read more’)

A Draft Ordinance for a Wind Power Facility was submitted to the federal government in 2007. It included a note on noise setbacks: “The Planning Board may impose a noise setback that exceeds the other setbacks set out in this Ordinance if it deems that such greater setbacks are necessary to protect the public health, safety and welfare of the community.” That was February 2007.

In March 2007, the town did impose a noise setback “that exceeds other setbacks”. An addition to the Vinalhaven Land Use Ordinance for a Wind Power Facility was passed, including noise protections tighter than State of Maine standards. Here are some of the standards: Noise Report Required, Noise Setbacks, Audible Noise Standard, Low Frequency Noise or Infrasound Noise, Pure Tone Penalty, Repetitive, Impulsive Sound Penalty, Pure Tone and Repetitive, Impulsive Tone Penalty, Operations-low frequency noise, and Noise Complaint, Investigation and Resolution Program Required.

By late 2008, the Vinalhaven wind turbine developers knew they would have a problem with noise. Neighbors know this now, but had no way to know it then. In September 2008, a consultant to the wind turbine developer submitted a preliminary wind engineering report: “It is recommended that further discussion be held with the Town to consider revisions to the Ordinance to be consistent with state guidelines that are less restrictive.”

In the meantime, the state legislature was succumbing to a shock and awe campaign by lobbyists from the wind power industry, including Fox Islands Wind.

In April 2008, the former governor’s “emergency” bill to remove all roadblocks to wind turbine projects was unanimously approved by the Legislature “under the hammer,” meaning with no debate on the floor and no roll call vote.

As Steve Thurston explains in the Portland Press Herald (“Land-based wind won’t offer enough power to justify its downside“, August 24, 2011) “The “expedited wind law” was like a night train that barreled through Augusta virtually unnoticed by Maine’s elected representatives. Three years later, every wind project approved under the new law has been appealed, and opposition to wind projects is growing rapidly. Responsible citizens realize that Maine’s wind turbine laws do not protect the environment or its citizens.”

On September 26, 2008 The Vinalhaven Planning Commission adopted a major re-write of the Wind Facility Ordinance, striking through all language on the earlier and more protective noise standard to simply state that the facility must comply with noise control rules adopted by the Board of Environmental Protection.

Click ‘more’, for the text of the Acoustic Ecology Institute commentary: “The island community of Vinalhaven, Maine, remains embroiled in a contentious wind farm noise controversy nearly two years after three turbines began operating there.  The nearby Camden Herald-Gazette recently provided a good, detailed overview of the latest rounds of the back-and-forth between nearby neighbors, the local electrical coop that buys the energy, and state regulators.

Vinahaven notching

An escalating legal tussle has developed since the Fox Island Wind Neighbors paid for noise monitoring and submitted data to the state indicating that the turbines were at times exceeding their regulatory limit.  The most recent salvo is a complaint filed in state court charging that state Department of Environmental Protection commissioners have overstepped their authority by over-ruling staff recommendations on how to deal with the violations.  The neighbors charge that compliance recommendations were watered down, and, most recently, requirements that Fox Island Wind prove ongoing compliance were removed.

The complaint details the unfolding disagreements, beginning in April 2010, continuing through September 2010 when the state DEP officially reported that the turbines were out of compliance by a few decibels in some conditions. Since that time, the complaint charges that three successive DEP Commissioners have meddled in the compliance process, culminating most recently when, according to the petition, ”Acting Commissioner Aho, over the objection of DEP professional staff, and in direct contradiction of the findings in the November determination of noncompliance letter, issued a compliance condition order.” The petitioners are asking the court to vacate Aho’s order and replace it with an order drafted by DEP staff, and to review the alleged instances of political intervention.

The article linked above contains extensive quotes from the complaint, as well as from Fox Island Wind, the local developer of the project.

Meanwhile, as part of ongoing efforts to seek innovative solutions short of curtailing operations, the local turbines are in the process of being modified by GE, their manufacturer.  Crews are applying serrations to the trailing edge of the blades; this experimental technique is designed to improve air flow off the blades, thereby reducing noise output by 2-4dB.  See this 2008 AEInews post about earlier research into such techniques.

Throughout the controversy, including in this article, Fox Island Wind has often returned to the idea that the ambient noise of wind in trees is a key factor in the higher recorded sound levels, while neighbors insist that the turbines are clearly heard through this ambient noise. In many ways, the Vinalhaven situation is a perfect example of one of the key, and often-overlooked, factors in wind farm noise debates: the regulatory limit is high enough that even when in compliance, turbines can be clearly the loudest thing in the local soundscape, triggering severe annoyance reactions and sleep disruption for nearby neighbors. While the legal sparring focuses on a 1-3dB violation of the operating standards (a difference in volume that is barely perceptible at best), the underlying fact is that even the allowed 45dB is too loud for many of those living within a half mile or so.

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