MONTPELIER, Vt. — Critics of industrial-scale wind farms say the Vermont Public Service Board’s new sound standards are a step in the right direction but ultimately may not help Vermonters.
“On the surface it is a big improvement over the current standard, and over the first draft, but there will be more public process, and the industry will fight against what I view as still inadequate to address all the issues,” said Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
The rules submitted to the Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules are not finalized. They address how noise output effects the closest residential properties, particularly at night when unnatural background noise can keep people awake.
The new rules, which apply to wind power facilities of at least 150 kilowatts, specify a nighttime standard of 35 decibels and a daytime standard of 42 decibels. They also propose a minimum setback of 10 times the total height of the turbines, which often reach 500 feet tall. If adopted, no 500-foot turbine could be sited within 5,000 feet to a home.
The standards mirror existing standards in European countries and parts of New England. For example, Germany has a 35 decibels at night rule while Denmark uses the 42 decibels daytime standard. Cape Cod requires the setback standard of 10 times the height of a turbine.
Mark Whitworth, board president of Energize Vermont, an environmental group that advocates for small-scale renewable applications, says the rules are long overdue
“The absence of standards has made the PSB appear to be a partner that has colluded with wind developers to the detriment of neighbors,” Whitworth said in an email to Watchdog. “The PSB has worsened the appearance of collusion by allowing wind developers to define their own noise monitoring programs and by failing to enforce permit conditions.”
Whitworth added that the public has lost confidence in the PSB, which has contributed to the public’s negative attitude toward state government.
Paul Brouha, a resident living near the Sheffield Wind Farm, has an ongoing case with the PSB regarding whether that power plant violates its certificate of public good. He also sees these new rules as a notable effort but probably not good enough.
In particular, Brouha takes issue with the way the sound would be measured as an average over 10-minute intervals. He suggests the duration should be mere seconds. Still, he said it’s beneficial that the PSB is analyzing policies outside of Vermont.
“It is nice to see the Public Service Board starting to actually pay attention to other jurisdictions’ standards,” he said. “This one closely mirrors the one over in Maine.”
Another debate involves whether distance standards should apply to residents’ homes or their property boundaries.
“Under the PSB’s proposed setback rules, turbines can still encroach upon neighboring properties, damage those properties, and rob neighbors of the opportunity to enjoy and develop their properties as they see fit,” Whitworth said.
Brouha claims the new standards may represent “backsliding” when compared to the standards found in Sheffield Wind’s certificate of public good, and Whitworth agrees. Act 174, Vermont’s new energy siting law, doesn’t permit weaker sound regulations than those in existing CPGs.
“The PSB’s proposed limits on noise are weaker than the limits it imposed upon Sheffield, Lowell and Georgia Mountain,” Whitworth said.
“The PSB has eliminated the indoor noise standard — the standard that the World Health Organization has recommended as the most protective of human health. In addition, the PSB has failed to recognize low-frequency noise and infrasound as operational effects that must be regulated.”
During public hearings in December, sound experts testified on what might be appropriate setbacks and sound limits. Stephen Ambrose, a sound consultant and member of the Institute of Noise Control Engineering, argued that decibel limits in the low 30s are acceptable for rural areas like Vermont. Another expert, Senior Environmental Health Scientist for Ollson Environmental Health Dr. Chris Ollson, suggested that up to 46 decibels is acceptable.
According to Whitworth, the benefits of any new rules ultimately rest with enforcement.
“The PSB, embodying everybody’s worst fears about bureaucracy, has frustrated turbine neighbors with its failure to investigate violations, prosecute them, and impose effective punishments upon violators,” he said.
He added that the board has “made it appear that it is in league with wind operators to wear neighbors down and demonstrate how pointless it is for them to try to exercise their rights as property owners and citizens of Vermont.”