The storm water runoff infrastructure at the Lowell Mountain wind project is failing, and millions of dollars in renovations could be required to fix it, according to a complaint sent to the Environmental Protection Agency. The problem may also affect a large wind turbine project in the southern part of the state.
This week, Vermonters for a Clean Environment asked the EPA to stay the renewal of operations at Lowell Mountain Wind after the group documented dying trees, polluted and eroded soils, unnatural storm water distribution and spreading of invasive species.
The group’s letter, addressed to New England region EPA administrator Curt Spalding, cites about a dozen system failures. The list includes, among other things, the drying up of wet ponds designed to hold water, scores of dead trees from a lack of water, continuous erosion of fine soils washing downhill, and a failure by level spreaders to evenly distribute water during rain events.
The complaint also asks for a stay on development of the Deerfield Wind project, a 15-turbine 30-megawatt project set for construction in Searsburg and Readsboro. The Deerfield runoff system is designed by the same people who designed Lowell’s storm water system, and utilizes the same level spreader and cut-and-fill methods.
The runoff issues are another setback for Vermont’s green energy policy, which aims to source 90 percent of the state’s energy from renewables by 2050. Other recent setbacks include noise complaints by nearby residents and pushback from towns against industrial scale wind energy projects
According to Annette Smith, director of VCE, the EPA is not likely to shut down the Lowell facility, but instead could require costly infrastructure redesigns to fix the problem.
The 2011 approval of the Lowell project was contingent on the performance of an experimental water distribution system based on “level spreaders,” a kind of trench design that spreads water out evenly while running down the mountain. Smith said these have not functioned as intended and may need to be replaced with collection ponds or other runoff management systems.
With the water running in new directions, new waterways have been formed, causing erosion of loose dirt — now in abundance after rock blasting. And where water used to run, streams and ponds are drying up, causing trees and other vegetation to die off.
“Clearly the person who designed this didn’t know what they were doing, or committed fraud,” Smith said.
Other concerns include high use of herbicides — over 50 gallons just last year, according to Smith — and invasive species are moving in at aggressive rates, which could be a result of careless tourism visits to the site.
Regarding the Deerfield project, Smith said the EPA has the power to override approval by the Public Service Board, a three-member quasi-judicial agency that regulates public utilities.
Padraic Monks, program manager of the storm water program at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, told Vermont Watchdog that systems on Lowell are being monitored closely and are passing the appropriate tests. He said he’s seen VCE’s photo documentation of degradation and plans to have the concerns investigated.
Smith said the runoff trouble was predicted by a team of 10 concerned Vermonters, including water quality experts and lawyers, who consulted with the EPA and Army Corps back in 2011. She said their voices of concern were dismissed for political reasons.
“At the end of each meeting, the people we met with told us there was massive political pressure (to approve the Lowell project),” she said. “During the meeting they told us we were raising good issues, and that they would look carefully at them and get back to us. Well they never got back to us and then the permits went out.”
Key people involved with the 2011 approval of the Lowell system include David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, who issued the permits, and Jon Groveman, general counsel at the Agency of Natural Resources.
When Watchdog contacted Groveman, he recommended that the Department of Environmental Conservation, a division of ANR, answer for the current conditions at the mountain. Mears, who said he issued the permit, added that he is not involved in the upkeep of the storm water system. He also said ANR is responsible for the current state.
Smith said she is dissatisfied with their response.
“It’s sad to see the people who were involved in approving and enabling this kind of damage to our most important and high quality waters now refusing to take responsibility for what they’ve done,” she said. “(They’re) passing the buck to people who are invested in keeping their jobs and pleasing the industry and the governor.”
She also expressed disappointment in the deterioration of Vermont’s prized ridge lines.
“What we have done in Vermont in the last 40 years is to recognize that our high elevations are the most important to protect,” she said. “We have the purest water on the planet up there. … If this project were to have gone through any other regulatory process, like Act 250, it would never have been allowed.”