Spruce Mt. Wind neighbors complain of "aircraft" sound
Woodstock property owners near the Spruce Mountain Wind turbines – particularly camp owners on Shagg and Concord ponds - said at a public informational meeting last week that noise from the towers is louder than expected, because it carries over water and bounces off nearby hills.
Its effects, some said, include sleepless nights and headaches, as well as general annoyance.
As for documenting the noise produced, one camp owner said he was told by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection that there is little hard data available from a noise-monitoring device maintained by the wind project owners, because the wires were chewed through by mice.
The 10 towers on Spruce Mountain have been operational since last December.
SMW’s state permit calls for noise limits of 55 decibels during the day and 45 at night, at either the property boundary or 500 feet from a residence (or "receptor").
Because Woodstock does not have a wind ordinance, a town committee was established last year to craft an ordinance for townspeople to consider to guide future wind projects.
The committee held a public informational and feedback meeting last Thursday, to present information and receive comment. About 20 people attended.
Chairman Bob Elliott, noting that the committee was considering a recommendation of a one-mile setback for properties near future wind turbines, displayed a topographical map on which he had plotted a one-mile distance from most of the existing towers.
The line ran through the middle of Shagg Pond.
Several people said based on their experiences, one mile was not enough, at least not at the currently allowed decibel level. They likened the sound to a passing aircraft.
A woman with a camp on Shagg Pond said that on the Friday before July 4th holiday, “The noise was so horrific at my camp that I couldn’t stay outside,” she said, saying she had suffered headaches. “It sounded like an airplane that never left the top of my house.”
She added that she had driven five hours to attend the meeting because “I love this town, and I don’t want to see this happen to someone else.”
She said she was not formally notified of the pending project because she was not an abutter.
Elliott also read several letters submitted by camp owners and residents near the ponds.
Craig Urquhart, an electrical engineer who owns a camp on Shagg Pond, said the sound resembled the low, deep rumble of a freight train in combination with a passing jet aircraft.
He said that before the towers were built, when the review process for the project was getting underway, “I read everything available, including the noise propagation study, to prepare myself for the coming shift. I am a retired paper mill electrical engineer, so technology is something I understand and appreciate.”
But when the turbines came online, he said, he felt “discouraged.”
The noise has disturbed the tranquility of the pond, he said, and while he said he must accept the project, he favors an ordinance to provide protection in the future.
A homeowner near Shagg Pond, Eric Black, wrote that after watching construction of the towers last fall, “It must have been one day in late November or early December of 2011 that my wife and I were inside the house and she asked me if I heard something. After listening, I replied that it was a jet plane. We didn’t think much about it until the next day when one of us heard what we thought was another jet. But this time we kept listening and the noise never went away. We realized it couldn’t be a jet unless it was circling the area. We went outside and listened. It was constant. It took a few moments and then it dawned on us that the sound was the wind turbines.
“Having lived with the turbines now for several months, it has become clear that the noise is loudest to us when the turbines are faced Northwest and the wind is coming from that direction. Our home is in that path and I guess that’s why. The wind comes over the blades directly toward us. What is most interesting to me is that they seem loudest on the calmer days. That is, if the wind is barely existent, I can really hear them roaring.”
Elliott said the committee had received more than a dozen letters of concern about the impact of the project.
Concord Pond resident Bob Moulton said he had requested data from a permanent noise monitor placed near the turbines by SMW, in compliance with a Department of Environmental Protection permit requirement.
According to DEP, the monitor is about 2,000 feet away from the last turbine on SMW’s eastern property boundary, between the last two turbines, a cluster of houses and Shagg Pond. It was placed downwind of the turbines, in the direction of the predominant wind.
But, Moulton said, he was told it had not been working because a mouse chewed the wiring.
He also said SMW had applied to DEP to have the permanent-monitor requirement removed, and be replaced by a plan to simply send out an acoustical expert with a monitor in response to specific complaints.
After learning the current monitor was not functioning, on July 15 Moulton requested DEP provide one at his home. A technician arrived July 17.
“Somehow between Sunday and Tuesday, they determined the wind and turbines would be identical to Sunday evening at 5:30,” he said. But the noise during the test, said Moulton, “was not even close to what it was Sunday,” and the measurement was within the required limits.
And, according to Moulton, the technician told him they would not come back if they did not hear from anyone else.
Elliott said the committee is considering an ordinance requirement for future projects for an escrow account arrangement, to provide funds for the town to hire its own independent experts and specialists for each phase of the project, such as acoustical engineers, construction engineers, geologists, or others as needed. The ordinance could also stipulate that information from a wind company’s own monitor be provided to the town periodically.
And given the feedback from property owners, he said, the committee’s idea to use a one-mile setback would need to change, to either a greater setback or lower decibel requirement, or a combination of the two.
The committee has been looking at ordinances, ranging from less to more restrictive on decibel levels and setbacks, from other towns.
A straw poll conducted at the end of the meeting offered choices of no ordinance (use state law only); moderate ordinance; mid-level ordinance; and strict ordinance. Of 17 responses, 16 favored mid-level or strict. Two comments favored taking terrain into account, and a 2-mile setback.
Elliott said he had joined the committee to prevent further negative impacts on property owners.
“To me it’s unconscionable what’s happened to these folks,” he said.
After the meeting Elliott said the committee is now working on a second draft for an ordinance, “which we hope to have done by mid-August. It will still need work. We'd like to have the finished product to the Selectmen by the end of September, but finishing it might take a little longer than that.”
Townspeople are expected to vote on it at the 2013 town meeting.
The committee meets the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. at the town office.
Dawn Hallowell, DEP’s Licensing & Compliance Manager for the region, responded Friday to some of the issues discussed at the meeting:
“Earlier today, SMW withdrew its minor amendment application to remove the condition for permanent sound monitoring at the facility. As such, SMW is still obligated to operate and maintain the sound monitoring equipment per the Department’s permit.
“To set the record straight, the department hired TechEnvironmental to investigate a complaint filed by Mr. Moulton on July 15. As required, SMW submitted the complaint to the department, when I asked for the monitoring data SMW said it could not provide it because a mouse had chewed through the wires. The department determined that in this instance it was appropriate to send its expert to Mr. Moulton’s property (with his permission) to monitor sound under similar conditions (which happened to occur July 17th). SMW cooperated in that it provided TechEnvironmental with SCADA data for both July 15 and July 17 so that TechEnvironmental could do an analysis. “TechEnvironmental wrote a report for the Department analyzing the data and the sound monitoring it did on July 17 and found that the project was operating in compliance with its permit.
The wind conditions on the ridge were slightly stronger on the 17th than the 15th and the turbine data shows that they were operating at a slightly greater power on the 17th. Wind was blowing in the same direction and the conditions were favorable for the monitoring. The data was analyzed to omit for background noises like barking dogs, construction crews and birds. And it was determined that the project is operating in compliance with its permit (55 dBA during the day and 45 dBA at night). There are no further planned efforts to monitor sound other than the permanent sound monitor that SMW will maintain.
“Testimony from noise experts at the Board of Environmental Protection’s hearings on Chapter 375 (10)(I) Noise regulationshttp://www.maine.gov/sos/cec/rules/06/096/096c375.doc indicated that at distances greater than 1 mile, the sound heard from the turbines will be in compliance with the regulations. Mr. Moulton’s camp is 1.5 miles away from the turbines. Part of the reason the department authorized the investigation was to see if the pond and terrain could be reflecting sound, making it louder.
“As part of its mission to protect the environment, the Department takes all complaints seriously. There is a procedure in place to file an official complaint, the Hotline number is 1-800-854-4990. SMW is obligated to inform the department when it receives a complaint and provide the Department with the data. The department will determine what actions are necessary to follow up on that complaint.
“SMW’s annual compliance data indicates that the project is operating in compliance. To date investigation into the two complaints filed have indicated that the project is operating in compliance. Considering this information, the department will not require the placement of a second sound monitoring device on Concord Pond.
(The first complaint was filed for Feb. 17 – 19 from a residence near the project’s eastern property boundary and Shagg Pond Road. The department hired its consultant to review the data from that time period and determined that the project was operating in compliance, according to Hallowell.)
SMW on the weather
As for the effect of weather conditions, in the conclusion of SMW’s original project permit application to DEP, the applicants addressed the subject in this way:
“Operation of the project may result in periodically audible sound at receptor locations under certain operational and meteorological conditions. Specifically, the project will be audible at the closest receptors in relation to the project, when background sound levels are low, and wind speeds are high enough for WTG operation on the ridgeline. Residents outside their houses and with a direct line of sight to an operating WTG may hear a gentle swooshing sound characteristic of wind energy projects. At more distant receptor locations, during meteorological conditions favorable to sound propagation and very quiet background ambient sound conditions, WTGs may be periodically audible but will be well within the criteria limits to avoid the potential for adverse noise impacts on public health and safety.”