A group opposing wind turbines in Vermont has taken what its organizers say is an unprecedented step by filing a public records request with several legislators who are reviewing new sound limits for future wind-energy projects.
Two of the legislators have already turned over all the requested documents. Six have not, said Annette Smith, director of the group, Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
To announce that she’d placed the records request, Smith convened a press conference inside the state capitol’s Cedar Creek Room, where the almost 20 supporters gathered behind her outnumbered her audience by about five to one.
A public records request is a demand to public officials to release written or otherwise stored communications they’ve exchanged on a given topic in their official capacity. These requests are a daily occurrence in most newsrooms. They’re commonly placed as well by law offices, advocacy groups, and other entities and individuals.
Any member of the public can make these public records requests, and most communications that public officials make in their capacity as public officials are considered public records.
Smith said she hopes the request will divulge communications between lawmakers and various wind-energy proponents.
It would be inappropriate to speculate upon what the requested records will reveal, Smith said.
But it’s nevertheless clear that her foes have influenced lawmakers in ways that she also considers inappropriate, Smith said.
With a scrum of followers clad in lime green construction vests behind her, Smith said the Public Utility Commission should tell the legislators reviewing the rules to “take it or leave it.”
The Legislature last year directed the PUC to write the sound limits in a piece of legislation called Act 174.
The eight legislators responsible for reviewing the new sound rules serve on a body called the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules.
That committee is responsible for reviewing new rules that state agencies draft. Members of LCAR are supposed to make sure rules meet basic criteria — for instance, they’re supposed to object to rules that are arbitrary, or that run counter to legislative intent, or that overstep the authority of the agency that drafted the rules, among other things.
That committee last week objected to several pieces of the PUC’s proposed wind-turbine sound limits.
Among them was a setback requiring new wind turbines to be placed no nearer to neighboring homes than 10 times the wind turbine’s height.
Another of LCAR’s objections to the commission’s proposed rules had to do with the way in which the commission arrived at a nighttime sound limit of 39 decibels, as opposed to some other number.
Several legislators said they thought either or both of these conditions weren’t well supported by the justifications the commission offered.
Indeed, PUC staffer Tom Knauer told members of that panel in an email earlier this year that the 10-times turbine-height setback “was not based on scientific information. Instead, this setback is based on the Board’s own experience with previous wind turbine projects.”
Commission staffers also wrote emails in February indicating that they could find rationale for any number of sound limits, and that they’d do so as soon as PUC members decided upon which one they preferred.
The PUC this summer offered to remove the setback from the rules if LCAR members so desired. Last week, LCAR voted against the setback.
Smith said she believed the PUC offered to remove the setback from the rules in order to ease their bid to get the remaining rules past LCAR.
This puts the PUC in the position, Smith said, where its three members should tell lawmakers to “take it or leave it.”
The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules will again take up the question of the PUC’s new wind-turbine sound limits next Thursday.