A recent clash between the state's two top environmental agencies suggests that, try as they might, wind-power opponents in Maine will face a difficult time quashing the wind industry's continued development in the state. Among other things, the episode confirms how vigorously Governor Paul LePage's administration opposes onshore wind farms.
Last year, the state Department of Environmental Protection ("the Department") issued its first ever rejection of a grid-scale wind project in Maine: the 14-turbine, $79 million Passadumkeag Windpark, proposed for Passadumkeag Mountain in Penobscot County. In its denial, the Department claimed that, while it met most of the standards required by the state's Wind Energy Act (such as those related to noise), the project would have "an unreasonable adverse effect on the scenic character" on the area and would fit "inharmoniously" into the landscape. The decision focused mostly on the impact on Saponac Pond, a small body of water with several camps around it that's used occasionally for fishing and boating.
Proponents of the project appealed the denial to the state Board of Environmental Protection (BEP) — a seven-member citizen body created by the Legislature to provide independent decisions on the interpretation, administration, and enforcement of laws relating to environmental protection. They argued that the Department was applying the wrong standard, and pointed out that the area was hardly pristine, with two communication towers and logging roads already marring the mountain. And although they agreed that the array of 450-foot-tall wind turbines would surely be visible from the pond — and that some might indeed find that visibility adverse — simply being observable is not a sufficient basis for determining whether or not the effect was unreasonable.
"The Department's reasonings for the denial were vague and inappropriate," said David Farmer of Bernstein Shur, the law firm representing Passadumkeag Windpark LLC. If wind developers had to take into account the mere fact of visibility, regardless of environmental or scenic significance, "it could have impacted many projects going forward."
In testimony quoted in the Bangor Daily News, Bernstein Shur energy and environmental practice attorney Katherine Joyce (sister of Phoenix managing editor Jeff Inglis) was even more explicit: "It would be precedent-setting," she said of the initial denial, which she claimed carried "the potential to control the future of wind development in Maine. Turbines have the potential to impact every landscape in which they're built. The impact of the turbine would be adverse, no question. But the question is this: Is the impact unreasonably adverse?"
(According to the Department, "there are three other proposed wind developments now under review by DEP, including FirstWind's 18-turbine Hancock Wind and 16-turbine Bowers Wind and Patriot Renewable's eight-turbine Canton Mountain project.")
In a defiant move on March 21, after hearing from both sides as well as from concerned citizens, the BEP overturned the Department's denial, ordering the state to write the Passadumkeag permit.
Unsurprisingly, the administration is pissed. "Sometimes we need to say no," said Department commissioner Patricia Aho (who previously worked as a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute and Dead River Co., among other companies) in a statement. "And the board's vote . . . calls into question whether we can truly do that when it comes to mountaintop wind development."
"While the initial and largely taxpayer-funded investment in wind power projects may be attractive so some, one-of-a-kind views like the ones from Saponac Pond have great value and are long-term drivers of Maine's tourism and natural resource-based economy," LePage said afterward. "I applaud DEP for subjecting wind power projects to the same robust review as other industrial developments. I am deeply disappointed in the Board of Environmental Protection's decision."
Fans of renewable energy, on the other hand — not to mention the companies that make money off Maine's wind resources — owe the BEP a thank-you note. ^