Lawmakers waded back into a battle waged for years between environmentalists who want to shorten the permitting process for smaller wind energy projects and residents who say their health suffers from living near a turbine.
During a legislative hearing Tuesday, residents who live near turbines accused environmental activists of persistently pushing legislation to make it easier to permit land-based wind energy projects without acknowledging health effects. Environmentalists argued benefits of the renewable energy outweigh some of the negative impacts.
George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, told lawmakers on the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee they need to have the political will to pass legislation streamlining the permitting process.
“Wind energy is the future,” he said. “And to think that progress in this area can come without any harm is a misconception.”
Bachrach argued that when highways were built some people were hurt when they lost property, but there was “overall common good.”
“Somehow there is this notion in Massachusetts that we cannot build wind energy unless no one is hurt,” he said.
Two bills before the committee (H 2980 and S 1591), filed by Rep. Frank Smizik and Sen. Barry Finegold, would institute comprehensive siting reform for land-based wind projects.
Similar legislation made it all the way through the House in 2010, but the Senate failed to finish work on the bill. Senators in favor of it attempted to get it passed during informal sessions, but it was repeatedly blocked by opponents during that summer.
Supporters of that bill, including the Patrick administration, said it would have helped expedite wind-based turbine projects while preserving the ability of municipalities to reject unwanted projects. No one from the Patrick administration testified on the bills Tuesday.
During the hearing, some opponents argued Massachusetts is too densely populated to allow wind turbines to be built anywhere on land.
Residents from Falmouth who live near a wind facility urged lawmakers not to pass the bill.
Neil Anderson, a Falmouth resident who lives one quarter-mile away from a turbine, described his suffering. Along with headaches, Anderson said he has trouble concentrating and memory loss. He said he has to leave his house when the winds are high.
“My life has been torn upside down. All I do now is fight wind turbines,” he said.
Anderson refuted claims by some environmentalists who say the wind turbines do not cause health problems.
“They just don’t have a clue about what is going on,” Anderson said. “This is about massive wind generators that are just too close.”
Anderson argued that Massachusetts is too densely populated for turbines to be sited anywhere in the state. “They don’t belong anywhere in Massachusetts,” he said.
He invited lawmakers to sit on his front porch and “see what these turbines can do.”
“Maybe one of you will get a headache, start feeling the pressure in your ears, because it’s real,” Anderson said.
In January 2012, an independent report commissioned by the Patrick administration concluded that wind turbines present little more than an "annoyance" to residents and that limited evidence exists to support claims of devastating health impacts. Falmouth and western Massachusetts residents argued at the time that the report was biased and based on "cherry-picked" information that ignored the real-world impact of turbines.
Smizik, a Democrat from Brookline who chairs the House Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, said current law favors large fossil fuel plants because only energy plants larger than 100 megawatts can go to the Energy Facilities Siting Board for a consolidated permit. Land-based facilities tend to be much smaller, so they do not have the “luxury” of the fast-tracked permitting option available to fossil fuel plants.
Smizik said the legislation he filed would streamline the process for on-shore wind energy only if the project met strict public safety and environmental standards.
“This bill does not give special interest to the wind energy industry, it just levels the playing field,” Smizik said.
The legislation establishes clear standards and timely and predictable permitting procedures, Smizik said, reducing the time and cost for wind projects.
Smizik said the legislation does not take away local control, something opponents contend it does. There is opportunity for public input, he said.
Rep. Timothy Madden, a Democrat from Nantucket, opposed the bill, saying it takes away a “great deal” of local control.
“My opposition on this bill has not changed over the last several years,” Madden said.
Madden filed a bill (H 2957) that would allow coastal communities to create exclusion zones for wind turbine development.
Smizik said one area of opportunity for wind energy that is being missed is in agricultural land. Farmers struggling to maintain viable farmlands could develop wind farms on their land as a way to power farms and increase profits by selling the energy, he said.
Michael Parry, a sheep farmer who owns 220 acres in Shelburne, said he would never put a wind facility on his property after researching the effects of turbines.
“I would never subject our neighbors to that. I wouldn’t subject my family to that, and I wouldn’t subject my livestock to that,” he said.
Parry mentioned a wind facility located near a dairy farm in Glenmore, Wisconsin where the farmer reported reduced milk production from his cows after the turbines went up. Parry said he favors renewable energy, but feels environmentalists are pushing projects before the impacts are understood.