Friday, February 12, 2010

Defending Our Homes from Big Wind

Please check out the end of this blog posting if you've already read the original article I wrote. Several people have emailed me directly with questions about hydrology. I am not an expert, so I turned to my good friend, environmental engineer Nancy O'Toole, for help. She's given us an easy-to-understand overview of some of the potential impacts mountaintop excavation and detonation can have on our valuable water resources. Thanks, Nan!

Today, I’m going to do something a little bit different. Today, I’m not going to create a tale for your amusement, nor am I going to write a poem or start a contest. Today, I’m simply going to talk to you. Woman to friend. Today, I’m going to tell you a little bit about a cause that I’ve committed to, and what a group of friends have been doing to help it along.

If you are a regular reader of GAG, you may have already gathered that I am opposed to mountaintop industrialization. I am an environmentally conscientious woman, and because of that, many people who discover that I am opposing the placement of 400 foot tall wind turbines on the ridgelines of our mountains might think I have supported the wrong side. Wind is supposed to be ‘green’, after all. And ‘green’ is definitely good!

But you see, all is not as it appears. There is just cause to question the ‘environmentally friendly’ labeling that these massive turbines garner. Many of us never stop to think about the total equation when we think about wind-generated electricity. We think of wind as being ‘free’. We think that roping that wind and using it to supply our daily demands for electricity is a win-win situation. But is it?

What are the total carbon emissions generated in the manufacturing of these gigantic machines--machines which are produced overseas, for the most part–-providing jobs for people in other countries? What are the emissions involved in the shipping and delivery of the parts and pieces for the towers? Sometimes they need to be moved half-way around the globe in order to reach their destinations here in the USA. Then, from the port of entry, they have to be trucked to the construction sites. And before they can reach those mountain ridges where the wind industry has determined they must go, what has to happen?

That’s right. Roads have to be built; roads that cut through forests and across streams and brooks. These roads have to be massive, too. We’re not talking a shady country lane, here. Some of you may have seen the sections of turbines which were hauled through western Maine last summer destined for the Kibby project. Trucks which were approximately 150 feet long from stem to stern carried the blades and tower sections and nacelles. One hundred and fifty feet long! In order for a truck that size to wind its way up the side of a mountain to its summit, the width of these roads at each switchback has to be incredibly wide! And before those switchbacks can even be graveled and ditched? The mountainside has to be excavated, cut, and leveled. The trees and shrubs and bushes and mosses have to be removed. They must be cut down, cleared and killed.

And then there is the mountain peak itself. Our Appalachians do not come with level summits. These peaks are craggy, rocky… natural! In order for the pads which will support these forty-story turbines to be created and made level and strong, an enormous amount of ground has to be moved. The bedrock has to be dynamited–blasted away– and the fractured rock removed so that the foundations can be poured.

Parts of our mountaintops have to be removed.

Have we thought about the effects of such destruction? Our ground water–one of our most precious resources–is contained and directed within the ledge which makes up our topography. When blasting occurs, how does that impact–that massive, rigid shuddering–throughout the rock transmit itself? Can it cause hydro-fractures? Of course it can. And sometimes, it does. It is not beyond the scope of possibility that once-dry land could become wet, or that those bogs and marshes which support so much of Maine’s migratory, endangered and unique species could go dry.

Picture it. Acre upon acre of life-sustaining flora will be removed. This is vegetation which provides not only oxygen, but shade and erosion control, habitat and browse. In order to keep the foliage from re-growing on the roadsides and transmission corridors, herbicides will be sprayed. Herbicides are poison. And that poison will be picked up and carried downhill in a heavy rain to end up in streams and ponds and bogs. In a long, light, soaking rain, those poisons will permeate the topsoil and leach into our groundwater.

There are, of course, many more potential impacts to our wildlife, our sensitive plants, and our micro-organisms as a result of such a destructive and invasive project. The truth is, we don’t know exactly what the finally tally will be. Unfortunately, we won’t know for sure how much damage will be done… until the damage is done. And by that time, it will be too late. We must not use our plants and our wildlife and our ancient mountains and beautiful forests as guinea pigs. We do not have that right.

This is a quote from one of the developers who wants to industrialize our Highland mountains. From the very beginning, these developers have touted the environmentally friendly nature of their projects. That message does, after all, appeal to each of us.

"It's very easy to assess the impacts of a particular project. It's almost impossible to assess the impact of not doing something. And...if we keep saying 'no,' what are the impacts of that in terms of global climate change?" PPH 2/12/10

I believe I’ve just raised some serious questions as to how environmentally friendly industrial wind actually is. And yet, the developer seems to believe that we should proceed with his plan, touting it as being a step towards reducing global warming, and assess the devastation afterwards. After all, once a 'particular project' has gone through, assessing the impacts will be 'very easy'. In my opinion, that is not a responsible position to take. I would also like to point out that the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the ME Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have both told me that they are concerned with the impacts these developments will have on our wildlife. They have also said there is no way to know what those impacts will be until these developments go forward. Do we, as stewards of this land, have the right to submit the native plants and animals to our own brand of laboratory testing?

Hmmm. I said I wasn’t going to editorialize, didn’t I? I suppose I wrote all that so that you will see that wind isn’t the cheap and easy and environmentally friendly fix that so many of us believe it to be. Yes, wind is free, and wind is renewable. But harnessing that gusting, moving air comes with a huge price tag. And personally, I think the cost is much, much too dear.

I oppose the placement of wind turbines on Maine’s unspoiled mountaintops for many more reasons than those ecologically-based ones listed above. These developments are not economically feasible. They don’t support themselves. The developers freely admit that if it weren’t for government subsidy monies being set aside for such projects, they would not build these energy plants. They would not be able to make their millions of dollars from your taxes and mine if the government did not freely hand our money to them. In addition, the power produced by these plants will be sold to southern New England, for we already produce more electricity than we use. The price for this ‘green’ power will be more expensive, too. It will be our mountaintops and our forests which will be sacrificed, but if we decide to buy back that power which was generated here in Maine, we will have to pay the higher rate which those customers in southern New England pay.

And then there are the health concerns and the quality of place and quality of life issues. Wind Turbine Syndrome is not something which was fabricated by some bored doctor or disgruntled citizen living in the vicinity of a wind turbine development. The health issues some residents are suffering from are serious, and deserve to be addressed by both the wind industry and the CDC and MCDC. Currently, such complaints are being brushed aside by those with the most power to affect change. I would love to see industrial wind developers and policy makers spend some serious time in the shadow of these massive mills. Perhaps then, if they lost sleep or felt anxious, or if they couldn’t open their windows to the fresh air due to low frequency sound, or open their shades due to disorienting shadow flicker… perhaps then, their fellow citizens’ complaints would be taken seriously.

Perhaps. But, perhaps not. There is, after all, a handsome buck or two to be made.

Okay. Now you know some of the reasons why I decided to oppose the industrialization of Maine’s mountains. I’ll leave the economical consequences of this scheme alone, for now. After all, at this moment in time, I believe Maine is still one of the best places to live on this earth. I believe our slogan is true. ‘Maine. The Way Life Should Be.’ It is. Right now, it definitely is.

The Friends of the Highland Mountains (FHM) is a small group of dedicated people who believe the same things I do. The bottom line? We believe that the development proposed for Highland Plantation is a disaster in the making. A disaster of enormous proportions. Without really knowing the ins and outs of activism, a handful of us organized in an effort to stop this wanton destruction of our corner of paradise. But it’s not just our slice of heaven that we are concerned with. We are committed to stopping this disaster from invading every mountain ridge in Maine. If the developers and Governor Baldacci have their way, practically every mountain and hill outside the Appalachian Trail corridor and Baxter State Park will share the same fate. We simply can’t sit idly by and watch our best resources being destroyed.

At this time, however, we have very limited resources. We cannot not go to battle for each mountain, yet. This Highland Plantation development is slated to happen next. The permit application has been deemed complete, and the clock is ticking. We have only a few short months in which to work. We are the litmus test for the rest of the state, and a huge burden rests on our collective shoulders. For now, we must concentrate our efforts on these peaks at our backs: Stewart, Burnt and Bald, Briggs and Witham. These mountains are our priority, and if we can successfully stop their industrialization, we will have laid the groundwork for those other Maine pinnacles destined to be irreparably scarred.

Our efforts have been great and varied. First of all, we believe that the education of the general public is of utmost importance. It is simply amazing to see how many people know next to nothing about the realities of Big Wind. Most folks simply don’t have the time to devote to research, and so they hear a few standard tag-lines about ‘green energy’ and ‘renewable energy’ and ‘reducing our dependence on foreign oil’ or ‘slowing global climate change’ and their minds are made up. It MUST be a good thing. Our governor said so! And a very popular ex-governor says so every day! So surely, it must be true.

An hour or two spent on the computer, or reading magazine articles, or books like Wind Turbine Syndrome by Dr. Nina Pierpont can change even the most stubborn and resolute mind.

Our attempts to educate have included mailing fliers and distributing them to local businesses, conducting informational meetings in area towns, and simply talking about this issue with fellow Mainers. We’ve copied hundreds of DVD’s to hand out… DVD’s which are comprised of direct testimonies from people just like you and me, who are now living in close proximity to industrial wind turbine developments. Last month we hosted a community-wide dinner and provided speakers who shared their knowledge with us and stayed after the meeting to answer questions. This coming Saturday, February 20th, we’re hosting a snowmobile ride to view our unspoiled mountains, followed by a supper with more speakers and factual information, to be held at Carrabec High School in North Anson. We have written letters to the editors of magazines and newspapers in the hopes that readers will feel a spark of interest and become motivated to learn more. We’ve written and written and written, we’ve printed, we’ve burned, and we’ve copied and addressed and stamped. And we don’t intend to stop. We feel it is our responsibility to share what we have learned. And we feel that Mainers, if they know the facts, will want to share that responsibility with us.

Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission gave us just sixteen short days in which to petition for a public hearing on Highland Wind LLC’s development proposal. This short time-frame spurred a flurry of activity as we scurried around trying to get petitions signed. We’ve collected hundreds of signatures thus far, but we won’t stop trying to get more until the very last minute.

That last minute just happens to be Friday, February 19th, just one week from today.

Too, we need to plan for the public hearing, should one be granted. We need expert witnesses, we need to line up people to file for intervener status, and we need people to simply testify from their hearts. We need an attorney to represent us and guide us as we battle this new threat to our land and our culture and our way of life.

And so, we’ve begun to try and raise funds. That, in my opinion, is the hardest part of this whole process. I am a proud Maine woman. I’ve never taken monetary assistance from anyone, and it goes against the grain to begin now, at this stage in my life. Without money for expert witnesses and an attorney, our chances of waging a winnable war are slim to none, so raise money we must. Even my own Mr. Grumbles, who is the least excitable person I know, has a passion for this cause and he built FHM a beautiful birch bark and twig-framed mirror to raffle off. That is but one small component of our fundraising campaign.

And now, after all that up there–all that wind from this woman in the western mountains– I’ll tell you what prompted this posting to GAG.

We scheduled a press conference. Our group felt it was important to take our message to a larger audience. We are small, and we are local, but to have a shot at stopping this insanity, we need support from the people of Maine. Northern Maine, southern Maine, those Down East and up west; each fellow Mainer is important and has a voice and a vote. Each Mainer has the right to hear the facts, and the right to weigh in on a proposal of this magnitude.

We reserved the State of Maine Room at Portland City Hall. We wrote out statements for the press packet, blew up photos and charts, and planned what we would say to the TV and newspaper reporters. And then, a dozen of us drove down to Portland to tell the people of this great state our story, and to ask for their support.

I was extremely proud of everyone in our group. Only one member has experience in activism or public speaking or of being in the center of attention. The rest of us are quiet country folk who prefer a life outside the spotlight. We knew, instinctively, that there was a possibility our words would be skewed or distorted. And I, personally, knew there was a good chance I’d say something stupid. Let’s not forget my propensity for bonehead moments, after all. Bomos are what I do best.

For the record, I only had two, and neither was caught on tape. I invited the cameraman from Channel 8 to film my cleavage (said out of context like that, it seems a bit crass, but there’s more to the story, I swear!) and I uttered one short expletive when I realized I was walking away from the camera with the microphone still fastened to my collar. But it was a very mild expletive… one my mother would frown at, but not one she would reprimand me for. Yes, all in all, the press conference was a success. My fellow Friends told of how the development would affect their lives, our economy, our ecosystem, and our culture. The reporters asked pertinent questions about the proposed development’s proximity to the Appalachian Trail and the Bigelow Preserve. One reporter from Maine Public Radio was even so kind as to ask what the citizens of Maine could do to help.

I was on a bit of a ‘high’ on the long ride home to my mountains. We’ve been working so hard, and we are up against those with power, money and influence. And yesterday, I knew we had been able to spread our message to a larger audience. Yesterday, my faith in my fellow man was restored.

Of course, what goes up must come down. I managed to catch the short article run on the NBC affiliate, WLBZ, at 5:30. And I’ll admit it: What I saw made me furious.
Our message was poorly conveyed, if at all.

The station chose to air one sound-byte, and it seemed out of context with the rest of the brief story they put forth. During the press conference, our chairperson shared the fact that Highland Wind LLC’s permit application included the information that approximately 1.6 million cubic yards of mountaintop would be excavated in order to make the roads and clear the open areas for the turbine foundations and other infrastructure. Much of that earth will be dynamited from the tops of the mountains, and our chairman equated it with ‘mountaintop removal’. In essence, that’s what it is. He then gave an example, so that people could clearly picture how much of the ridgelines were going to be displaced by just this one development. He said that the earth removed would fill over 100,000 dump trucks which, stretched end to end, would reach from Highland Plantation to North Carolina.

That was it. That was our message, according to the Channel 2 news. And from that short passage, without the information included which led up to or which followed those words, the news piece moved to a quote from Angus King. Mr. King, of course, is the former governor of Maine and one of the primaries in Highland Wind LLC. Mr. King and his partner, Rob Gardiner, are the gentlemen whose development we are opposing. Yes, we’re playing in the Big League, now. We held a thirty minute press conference, we were awarded one quote, and Mr. King had one refuting comment. Or rebuttal. Or whatever it’s called in the game of hard ball. His response to our concerns? He stated clearly and succinctly that the blasted and excavated mountain soil and rock would ‘not be removed from the mountains’. It was so important, in fact, that he said it twice. ‘It will not be removed.’

That’s right. It’s staying right there. On those mountains. In the form of road surfacing material, fill, and the like.

I guess that makes it okay. Thank God it won’t be ‘removed’.

All right. It’s clear that I’m still angry. The feelings of fury and righteous indignation were overpowering last night and that’s why I waited until this evening to write this blog posting. You see, I want to fight fair. I don’t want to sink to the levels that some might sink to. I believe that those who do the right thing are rewarded for it. It’s na├»ve of me, I know. And even though I knew in my heart that our message could be corrupted and distorted, I still chose to believe that each news outlet in attendance would do the right thing. I applaud them for asking Mr. King for a response. Really. That is what a fair and balanced news reporter should do. But I also hoped that our message would get out; that our concerns and our fears and our request for support from the people of Maine would be part of the coverage on each news station which sent a reporter to our press conference.

I am often disappointed in human nature, but I do not despair. For every distorted story, there are two or three facts which will get out. For every greedy individual or entity, there are a dozen generous people who want to do the right thing. And for every gust of Big Wind that threatens our mountains, there are gentle breezes in the form of kind, brave and hardworking Mainers who are striving to defend their homes and their quality of place. Big Wind is dangerous, and can threaten the mightiest of ships. Give me a light and steady wind, any day. You’ll be amazed at how far and how safely you’ll sail.

We aren’t giving up, and we aren’t going to lose our mountains.

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Top photo of the Highland Mountains taken from Little Bigelow by Alan Michka
Frog and Members of the Press photos taken by Josie Pease
Mirror photo by me...
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The following overview of mountaintop hydrology, was provided by Nancy O'Toole, Environmental Engineer

The mountains of Maine, especially those above 2700 feet, are unique in that the soils, hydrology and vegetation are very fragile. These high places were protected, by an act of Maine’s legislature, from development until 2008 when the Kibby mountain industrial wind project was permitted.

The soils, hydrology and the steep slopes above 2300 feet have unique qualities that make it very difficult to build roads and other infrastructure without significant affect to the surrounding area. The soils are rated as having very low potential by the NRCS, which means that there are severe initial and continuing limitations that must be overcome in order to build stable roads while minimizing environmental impacts. The soils may have thixotropic properties, which means the soil is thick and solid (viscous) under normal conditions, but flow (become thin, less viscous) over time when shaken or agitated, which occurs during the construction of roads in the high mountains. Once the soils become unstable and have their connectedness or natural bonds interupted mud movement like what occurred at Kibby mountian becomes ever more common. This movement of the surface soils can be small, a mud torrent down a skidder track, to enormous, such as the landslides we hear about that take away entire communities.

Hydrology is the study of the movement, distribution, and quality of water in any given area. The natural hydrology or flow of water at the wind power complexes is being disrupted and fractured as the roads and tower pads are blasted out, cut to grades and filled when low areas or valleys need to be crossed. Special engineering controls are necessary to re-connect interupted water flow from actual construction locations and from slopes above a new roadway to the slopes below. The construction and the engineering controls change the natural eco-system at the ridge top locations and in areas below. Water from seeps, springs, natural brooks and streams are disrupted by the blasting of ledge and rock for road construction. This has far reaching impacts down gradient, or down stream.

Once the hydrology has been fractured the over-all ecosystem is never the same again.

Think of it like a bowl that is turned upside down and the surface is covered with thick icing. You now drill a series of holes around the top of this inverted bowl. If you sprinkle a bit of water on the bowl it slowly flows down the sides or passes into some of the holes. Unfractured mountain flanks act in a similar fasion. Water trickles down the sides or soak into the soil and into the cracks in the mountain massif. Nothing moves too quickly, and the surface remains relatively moist and sound and well knit together by the forest root systems.

Now scrape off most of the icing up near the top of the inverted bowl and plug many of the holes. Next pour water over the bowl again. When you remove most of the icing from the surface and plug the hole, the water flows fast and furious and strips away much of the remaining icing with it. It can’t sink in thru the holes and the surface has lost its bonding and ability to resist the erosive force of the water. This is what happens to our mountain tops and ridges when wind turbines, the roads required to reach them and maintain them, or any other significant construction occurs up in the high, fragile, weather hammered regions above 2,300 feet. The rains and snow melt can’t follow the age old paths down to the swamps and streams any more, and can’t sink into the mountain massif either. The entire surface, as well as the upper levels of the mountian rock has been shaken and restructured by the blasting, excavation and filling that is part and parcel of heavy construction. The water no longer can escape in a moderate manner. Instead, it splashes and gushes down the mountian sides, eroding and digging and toppling trees. In areas where the sub surface flow has been diked or stopped the soil becomes super saturated and loses its strength. Eventually it boils up and out in a mud or rock slide.

Kiss your camps or clean water ways 'Good Bye'.

8 comments:

  1. You are Maine's 'Jean d'Arc'.
    for that I salute you!
    You have the fire.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It won't be easy, Kazza, but you and TFoHM can win through. You're fighting for your way of life; King and his cronies are fighting for wealth (is this the same Angus King who drove his family 15,000 miles around America in a 40-foot bus just so he could say he'd seen the place? Smacks of hypocrisy to me that he'd now try to mitigate that idiocy by dumping a couple of dozen 500-foot wind turbines above an unspoilt valley.)

    Fight, and we'll support you.

    And I reiterate what I've always said: I'm not against renewable sources of energy, but to replace one kind of pullution with another is madness...madness on a scale not dis-similar to that which gave Australia the cane toad. Yup, politicians have a lot to answer for.

    Good luck!

    --JackR

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  3. Hi Ali g. You always have something uplifting to say. Although... wasn't Joan burned at the stake or something?

    (Nervous twitter...)

    Heh... You know me. I've always been an optimist, and even when I occasionally get knocked for a loop I still believe in the awesomeness of my fellow man. It's people like you who keep that faith alive.

    I am convinced that the rugged, natural mountains of Maine will remain, and that the promoters of Big Wind will concentrate their efforts on finding a more responsible venue from which to harness the wind. It'll be okay. WE'LL be okay. And I can't wait to show you this beautiful, unspoilt corner of our planet!

    Ta.
    Kazza

    P.S. One more day until the contest ends, and then it will be up to you to decide the winner. I just bellowed a reminder to my friends and fans and family... maybe we'll get another entry or two. Talk to you soon, ducks.

    (She died, Ali g! Hehehe. Hehehe... oh, brother.)

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  4. Hiya, Jack. Thanks for weighing in, and for the empowering words of support.

    Yes, btw... that's the same Angus King. :o)

    You know, I rather liked him as a governor--voted for him both times. That's why I am choosing to believe that he and his partner will give this some serious thought, now that they are hearing the opposition that is mounting across the state of Maine. A girl's gotta have hope.

    If not, then we will do everything within our power under the law to stop this development. Please keep plugging for us, okay? (Sounds silly to ask, but it makes me feel better to know you're in our corner.)

    Thanks again, Pal.

    From the beautiful mountains of Maine,
    Kazza

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  5. Please check out the addition I've made to the end of this posting. Several people emailed me directly to find out about the impacts this development could have on our valuable water supply. My friend, environmental engineer Nancy O'Toole, rode to my rescue and has provided a simple overview of the possible consequences. Thanks, Nan... for all you are doing to help us save our valuable resources.

    Tonight I am heading over the mountain to Pleasant Ridge, another small village which will be greatly impacted if this project is approved. Please come to this informational meeting at 6:00 p.m. at the old schoolhouse. Other such meetings will be held in the near future in Kingfield, Carrabassett Valley and the surrounding communities as we work to raise awareness about this far-reaching issue and educate our fellow Mainers. Stay tuned to GAG for details, or go to the Friends of the Highland Mountains website: www.highlandmts.org for more information, or to find out what you can do to help.

    Thanks!

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  6. My usual frivolity aside I have to say i am scared for Maine's future should the wind turbines happen to you beautiful state.
    I hope your states residents listen carefully to what you have to say and join forces against those who would put their own financial benefit above the future wellbeing of your beautiful state.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Trev.

    Thank you so much. You know, I am feeling very hopeful. I spoke to a group of folks in tiny Pleasant Ridge last night, and I could see fire in the eyes of many. No one knew what was coming... the expedited permitting law was passed as an 'emergency' law, after all... but now that the word is getting out, people are starting to take notice. And to take exception! The people of Maine will put a stop to the industrialization of Maine's mountains, I'm sure of it now.

    But Highland's mountains are first... they are NEXT. I only hope we can stop this development in time to save Stewart, Witham, Bald, Briggs and Burnt!

    Thanks again, Trev.

    xxxxxxxxxooooo

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  8. This is freaky... the word that I had to enter to post this comment was 'hydrec'...

    Freaky!!!!

    ReplyDelete