While thousands of wind power enthusiasts and industry representatives gather in Anaheim Calif. for Windpower 2011, the American Wind Power Association's popular annual conference and exhibition, some 3,300 miles east, wind power is tearing a tiny island community asunder.
In the latest turn, an attorney representing several homeowners living closest to a three-turbine wind installation on the island of Vinalhaven in Maine's Penobscot Bay filed a formal complaint with the Maine Public Utilities Commission on Monday.
The complaint charges that the Fox Island Electric Cooperative, the local utility, and Fox Island Wind, the developer of the wind installation which is owned by the utility, have engaged in repeated harassment of the homeowners, who have argued since shortly after the turbines came online in late 2009 that the machines have been in violation of state noise ordinances. That assertion was subsequently supported by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The developer has repeatedly disputed those findings, and the majority of the island's residents support the wind farm, which is seen as a source of eco-pride and sensible thrift, ostensibly saving the island from the need to import pricier power from the mainland.
But Monday's complaint states that the residents nearest the turbines have legitimate concerns that have long gone unheeded, despite multiple attempts to resolve the issue through negotiation, and that instead the local utility has recently upped the rhetorical ante by placing two separate "inserts" inside all islanders' utility bills. The inserts claim that legal expenses associated with the neighbors' noise complaints were costing the cooperative hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that as a result, a 5 percent increase in utility rates was needed.
The announcement caused the neighbors, perhaps not surprisingly, to suffer "retribution, harassment and hostility" from fellow Vinalhaven residents who are not within earshot of the turbines, according to the complaint. The utility's tactic also amounted to what the complaint called "intimidation and an abuse of the powers of a utility."
Vinalhaven became a flashpoint last year for a small but persistent backlash against industrial wind power, as residents living nearest the spinning behemoths became vocal about their experiences.
Like nearly all residents of the island, they supported the idea of a wind farm at first. Yet the Fox Island Wind Neighbors, as the loosely knit group of a dozen or so residents dubbed themselves, said they soon began to worry about the noise, being within a one-mile radius of the project site.
Representatives of Fox Island Wind assured them the noise would be minimal. But as Art Lindgren, one of the neighbors, told this reporter last year, their worst fears were confirmed once the turbines were switched on.
"In the first 10 minutes, our jaws dropped to the ground," he said. "Nobody in the area could believe it. They were so loud."
Lindgren's lament has been echoed in jurisdictions across the land, as an increasing number of communities come to weigh the innumerable collective benefits of wind power -- clean, non-toxic, no emissions, climate-friendly, water-friendly, renewable, sustainable -- against some of the downsides experienced by those living nearby.
Indeed, proximate residents around the country have cited everything from the throbbing, low-frequency drone to mind-numbing strobe effects as the rising or setting sun slices through the spinning blades:
Others have gone so far as to describe something called "wind turbine syndrome," arising from turbine-generated low-frequency noise and "infrasound," and causing all manner of symptoms -- from headache and dizziness to ear pressure, nausea, visual blurring, racing heartbeat, and panic episodes -- though the science on these claims is still thin.
And there are still lingering and long-standing concerns over hazards presented by turbines to migrating birds and bats.
At Vinalhaven, for example, a 28-month study conducted by ornithologist Richard Podolsky, who was hired by Fox Island Wind, the project's developer, recently declared the turbines' impacts on local eagle and osprey populations to be negligible.
But in March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter to attorneys representing the Fox Island Wind project, lambasting those conclusions. The letter questioned the study's methodologies for studying eagle, bat and bird collision assessment and mortality, suggesting that they needed to be more rigorous and better-defined and described.
The wildlife regulators asked that new studies be conducted before a permit necessary to allow the project to proceed -- despite the potential for incidental harm to bald and golden eagle species in the area -- is issued. Both are protected by federal legislation.
Meanwhile, the complaint filed on Monday asks the Maine Public Utility Commission to sanction the Vinalhaven utility and Fox Island Wind for the utility bill inserts, and urges them to prevent any similar communications with ratepayers in the future.
It also asks that the state commission prevent the island utility from attempting to raise rates to cover expenses from its dispute with the affected homeowners going forward -- characterizing such expenses as "the product of mismanagement, and reckless conduct."
Queries sent to officials at Fox Island Wind and the Vinalhaven electric cooperative were not immediately returned Tuesday morning. This report will be updated if they respond.
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