By Justin A. Rice, Town Correspondent
For three hours last night, a standing room only crowd crammed into the third-floor meeting room at the City Hall Annex to officially kick off public discourse on Mayor Kimberley L. Driscoll’s proposal to put a wind turbine on Winter Island Marine Park. While the proposed 382-foot wind energy facility took a lot of heat from residents who live near the potential site, Driscoll was quick to note that the meeting was only the first in a series of public forums on the proposal.
“This is the first true public meeting we’ve had solely on the wind turbine and frankly it’s the first time we’ve had this much information to share with folks,” she said after the majority of residents who spoke expressed opposition. “So I hope that people don’t come in with preconceived notions that ‘Absolutely no way over my dead body,’ and I promise you we won’t come in with the notion ‘Absolutely no way over my dead body it has to go there.’
“I think that is what we owe each other as we try to determine what is in our best interest going forward.”
In addition to refereeing a chippy back-and-forth between opponents and proponents with ammo from the Internet, Driscoll tired to quell fears that the proposal is being pushed through at breakneck speed. A possible groundbreaking could come next summer and completion could follow in the fall of 2012.
“We started this in 2007 so I can’t really say this feels rushed, but I don’t want to give people the impression at all that this is some sort of a done deal, that you’re going to have a wind turbine at Winter Island,” she said. “We put a timetable with projections because we’re trying to share information. All of these things are on the Web, more will be up there [today] but we’re trying to talk about ways to vet some of the information.
“The wonderful thing about the Internet is it has everything, some of it valuable, some of it not. We want to try to make sure we stick to the things most valuable, hopefully fair and objective and use our website for the Renewable Energy Task Force page, as a way to gather information.”
A consultant recently completed a state-funded feasibility study for the city that demonstrated the technical and economic viability of the single turbine with a capacity of 1.6 megawatts, or enough electricity to power 300 to 500 homes. The turbine would draw an estimated $586,000 in revenue annually and save the city more than $1 million a year in electric costs.
The city could also potentially win $1.1 million in grant money to help offset the cost of the $4.2 million project.
“We applied to some grants because that’s the timetable the grants asked for,” Driscoll said of a $400,000 Mass Clean Energy Center grant and an up to $700,000 grant from the Mass Energy Consumers' Alliance. “We want to be in the running and put our stake in the ground for this, but clearly we have concerns about public safety, concerns about public health, issues that for the first time we’re sharing with folks about what this wind turbine study revealed.”
But opponents say the turbine would be too close to homes on Winter Island Road and Salem Willows. They also worry that the 32-acre park that includes a function hall, public beach, camping and picnic areas, a pier, and a boat ramp is not appropriate for industrial and commercial use.
“The reality is that it sounds like you should not go up and hug a windmill,” said one woman concerned that a buffer zone wouldn’t protect children playing in the turbines shadow.
Several members of the audience cited a recent Boston Herald story that said the state has agreed to review the health impact of low frequency sounds generated by wind turbines. While some doctors say the turbines can cause health problems such as nausea, vertigo and headaches, the American Wind Energy Association’s acoustic researchers found “no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects,” according to the Herald.
“I’ve talked to people in Falmouth who are farther away from their turbine than I would be on Winter Island and their life is totally decimated,” said former Salem city councilor Kevin Harvey, who lives on Winter Island Road. “Their town has put a year moratorium on building another one. They have to shut down the turbine when the wind reaches 23 miles per hour.”
The city says the turbine would create as much as 55 decibels of noise nearby and 34 decibels from 3,000 feet away while noting that the typical quiet suburban setting is 30 decibels on its own.
“I’ve been by the one in Hull and I would never buy property in that area,” a woman shouted at one point during the meeting, interrupting the mayor. “The sound is horrendous.”
But Malcolm Brown, the former Hull city light commissioner, drove all the way to the North Shore to defend his town’s two turbines, one of which is next to Hull High School’s football stadium. He said the technology they use for their turbines are much more advanced and therefore quieter than the six-year-old Falmouth turbines.
“We put the second one up because of popular demand,” he said. “In Hull there’s a movement on now to get a third one.”
While State Reps. John Keenan of Salem and Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead co-signed a letter expressing their support, Salem city councilors-at-Large Joan Lovely and Steven Pinto said they’d like to see the turbine go in another location.
The city studied nine potential locations but ultimately determined that the South Essex Sewage District plant on Fort Avenue and Winter Island are the most feasible.
Winter Island meets the wind requirements, the city says, and is the greatest distance from residential structures. It is close to available power distribution that would allow the city to sell power to the regional grid.
“One thing we heard a lot about is ‘We all support green energy but not here,’” Driscoll said. “I hope we’ve cleared up that there’s not a lot of places in Salem where you could put something like this. There really are only two and when you start to look at the economics and the math this is the one that has the ‘Right here this will work.’
“Now there are impacts and we want to try to vet through those and understand what those are.”
Driscoll said the city will reach out to other cities and towns that have been negatively impacted by wind turbines and present those findings at the next meeting sometime this fall.
“We’ve heard a lot about Falmouth; I did too, I read the Herald, on occasion,” she said before pausing for the crowd’s laughter. “We want to dig deeper and find out what happened there … But for every bad example it certainly seems like there’s another really good example of some community that has a wind turbine that is very clean and isn’t suffering from the impacts.”
At that point one of Driscoll’s predecessors had heard enough.
"We don't want it in Winter Island,” former Salem Mayor Tony Salvo hollered before heading toward the exit to listen to the final comments of the meeting. “We don't want it in Salem. Let it go somewhere else."
Justin A. Rice can be reached at email@example.com