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SD farm country adopting larger turbine setbacks

Wind turbines No Comments »

South Dakota has the nation’s 4th-best wind resources, and wind is currently the source of 30% of the energy produced in the state, the 2nd highest proportion the nation—yet it lags behind several of its great plains brethren in ramping up its wind industry, which currently has about 1000MW of installed capacity. North Dakota is home to nearly three times as much wind energy, while Iowa and Oklahoma each host nearly seven times as much. But if recent push-back is an indication of things to come, the wind boom that many SD farmers hope for may not materialize unless they adopt a more collaborative approach to working with their neighbors.

Two counties and one township have grappled with turbine setbacks in recent months, and all of them have pushed the pause button on business-as-usual turbine siting. Letcher Township adopted a one-mile setback, Lincoln County voters affirmed their planning commission’s half-mile setback for the 150-turbine project planned there, and Davison County is taking some time to develop a new standard after declining to adopt a 1000-foot standard in May. (See notations on the map for a general idea of their locations, in relation to the state’s 14 wind projects and five production facilities.)

Letcher is a tiny place, but the populous came out overwhelmingly against the prospect of a wind farm coming to town. “Of the 77 registered voters, 50 of them did sign a petition against it,” Letcher Township Supervisor Murray VanLaecken said. “For families who own an acreage, there’s no benefit of being by a wind farm…it’s just going to cause them to have to look at it and when they go to sell, what is their property worth now with wind towers surrounding it?” VanLaecken said.

Of course, for those leasing land to wind companies, the prospect of $10,000 or more per year for each turbine is very attractive. “There’s no legal crop we can grow to make that much money off of one acre,” said Sara Bovill, president of the Lincoln County Farm Bureau and co-chairwoman of Farmers and Friends for Wind, which encouraged Lincoln County voters to reject the proposed half-mile setback.  David Iverson, a landowner at the Buffalo Ridge II Wind farm affirmedRead the rest of this entry »

BLM to reassess motorized recreation in Utah’s red rock country

Vehicles, Wildlands No Comments »

A nine-year court battle over motorized recreation in Utah’s red rock country has ended with a compromise agreement in which the BLM will take a new look at 13 travel management plans covering about 6 million acres. A consortium of environmental organizations had challenged 2008 travel plans from six BLM field offices that included 20,000 miles of trails.  The settlement drops the challenges in one field office and about half the targeted acreage, while mandating site-specific reassessment in such popular areas as the San Rafael Swell, Nine Mile Canyon, Dolores River, Gemini Bridges, and the Book Cliffs, as well as Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Dinosaur National Monument. The settlement allows oil and gas leases sold in 2004 to proceed, mostly in the Uinta Basin.

Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, commented that “the negotiations leading up to the settlement agreement were hard fought, and contentious. In the end, we came to a place that provided sufficient certainty to the conservation groups that BLM would take seriously its responsibilities to minimize the impacts of off-road vehicle use on all public resources, including wilderness.”

On the other side of the table, Paul Turcke, the attorney for off-highway vehicle groups, said, “We’re not turning cartwheels over this, but given the alternatives and given the fact that we could participate effectively and make positive changes to this agreement, we think it’s the best option for moving forward.” Motorized recreation enthusiasts applauded the lack of any immediate changes on the ground; no routes were closed as part of the settlement, though some are likely to be shut down during the renewed planning process. Turke notes, “Everyone gets a fair shake in the future process and they can challenge the outcome if they choose.”

The State of Utah and several counties were strongly opposed to the settlement, largely on the basis of longstanding local claims to old roads in the desert. 3000 miles of these so-called RS2477 roads are laced across the BLM land subject to the settlement. “The settlement creates a new regime that is designed to limit access and close travel routes,” the Utah attorney general’s office wrote in a brief filed in February, asking U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball to reject the settlement; “Requiring the BLM to enhance wilderness characteristics, for example, can only be accomplished by closing roads.”

Not incidentally, SUWA’s legal challenge contended that the BLM relied too heavily on the old county roads when it made its 2008 decisions about where to authorize travel, claiming that some of these routes are no longer visible on the ground. The legal challenge targeted the need for more assessment and protection of archeological resources, along with calls for more wilderness protection and designation of three areas of critical environmental concern. Any reductions in motorized use will enhance opportunities for quiet recreation and increase the area within which hikers can experience the deep solitude of the desert and its canyons.  The ideal solution will be creating more separation between motorized and quiet recreation sites.

As Earthjustice attorney Robin Cooley said after the settlement was announced, “BLM must take a fresh look at where it will allow off-highway vehicles to drive, this time with an eye towards protecting the very things that make Utah’s redrock country so special — its wildness, opportunities for solitude, and irreplaceable archaeological sites.”

Interestingly, the indispensable High Country News ran a piece recently entitled “The making of a motorhead,” which puts a human face on the debate. At the time I’m posting, the article is in the subscribers-only portion of their site, but if it opens up to others, it’s well worth a read. This excerpt captures some of the tone: Read the rest of this entry »

Why do we subject endangered orcas to ANY commercial whale-watching?

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Here’s an idea that’s so obvious that I’m amazed it isn’t at the center of public discussion about the declining orca population in and around Puget Sound. I happened upon it online (well, not exactly happened upon, thanks to my “whales noise” Google News section…); it was a guest commentary in a Vancouver Island paper, and I’ll let the author, Diane McNally, speak for herself:

Massive declines in salmon populations over the past 100 years have made it harder for the orcas to find food. Bodies of the males qualify as toxic waste, as they do not offload toxins in milk while nursing babies. Increasing ocean noise makes it harder for orcas to communicate with each other and to find food.

The remaining 78 southern residents are surrounded by buzzing boats any time they can be found. Can anyone say “watching” them during every daylight hour, as often as their location can be determined, for every day of their lives in the “whale watching season,” April to October, is helping them?

Put yourself in the orcas’ place. It’s as if you had neighbours who never turned off the leaf blower, lawn mower or loud music. Studies have shown behavioural changes in response to both noise and the presence of boats.

One next step in supporting the southern residents’ struggle to regain population viability is a retreat from entertaining ourselves by chasing and stressing individuals of this endangered population in the wild. We have the technology — underwater cameras and hydrophones — to see and hear them while allowing them the dignity of living their lives free from our desire to be entertained by them as they simply try to survive.

Indeed! Why should we humans have the “right” to hover around these wild creatures as they go about their days? Let an orca sighting become something rare and special: glimpsed from shore or happened upon while out on the water in your sailboat or on a ferry crossing.

Here’s a little taste of the life of an orca (if clicking the “play” arrow doesn’t start the audio after a few seconds, then click inside the white bars along the bottom and that’ll trigger it):

Ships to slow near Vancouver Island to reduce noise impacts in key orca feeding area

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About 14 times a day, a large ship passes through Haro Strait on its way to or from the Port of Vancouver. From early August through early October, Port authorities are asking them to slow down, in a pilot project to assess how that might reduce the overall sound levels of shipping in this biologically important area. “I’d say it’s a first in the world, a project of this scale,” Orla Robinson, manager of the port’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program, said. “We’re trying to understand the relationship between slower vessel speeds, underwater noise levels and the effects on the whales.” In other locales, including San Francisco, ships are asked to reduce their speeds to reduce the chance of striking whales.

Haro Strait is a narrow passageway between Canada’s Vancouver Island the American San Juan Island, and is a prime summer feeding ground for the resident orca population, which has dwindled to less than 80 members. The voluntary speed restrictions will ask all ships to slow to 11 knots (about 13 mph) through a 16-mile corridor; cruise ships and container ships often run at 18-20 knots, while bulk carriers travel at 13-15 knots.  The slowdown will reduce the noise of each ship as it passes by 40% or more, though it will linger in the area a bit longer; the net effect is expected to be beneficial by reducing the degree of impact on animals in the region.

“Underwater noise is one of the principal threats to southern-resident killer whales,” confirmed Lance Barrett-Lennard, head of the Vancouver Aquarium’s cetacean research program. “The effect is thought to be most significant in years when chinook returns are poor, as predicted for 2017.” Marine researcher Rob Williams, co-founder of Oceans Initiative, added: “I’m extremely supportive of this effort. Slowing down is an inexpensive way to reduce noise levels quickly.”

Researchers will monitor noise levels and track how many ships heed the voluntary limit. They will also look at operational and financial impacts on the shipping industry, recognizing that there will be times when docking schedules or tide patterns may make it difficult for ships to slow down. If 50-70% of the ships moderate their speed, the project will be considered a success and will provide good data from which to consider further action in future years.

“If you’d asked me a year ago, there would have been some skepticism,” said Robert Lewis-Manning, president of the B.C. Chamber of Shipping. “As shipping companies have learned more about the ecological challenges, the more they have pitched in to participate. We’e seeing healthy support now. People are supportive of getting the data.” More than 30 companies so far have agreed to participate in the pilot program “where operationally and economically feasible, on a transit-by-transit basis,” including Holland America, Washington State Ferries, Westwood Shipping Lines, COSCO, and container shipping giant Maersk.

UPDATE, 8/7/17: As of today’s start of the research program, 54 companies have agreed to participate in the voluntary slow-down, including 100% of the members of three key trade associations, Chamber of Shipping, Cruise Line International Association Northwest and Canada and Shipping Federation of Canada. It appears that the vast majority of the expected 800 ship transits occurring during the study period will be adopting the slower speeds.

Listen live to a hydrophone at Lime Kiln (red dot in map above).

End of the line for Falmouth wind turbines

News, Wind turbines No Comments »

The Falmouth Board of Selectmen have decided not to continue the legal battle over two wind turbines that began operation at the town’s wastewater treatment facility in 2010 and 2012. The decision comes in the wake of a ruling from Massachusetts Superior Court last week that called for immediate cessation of turbine operations. Wind 1 has been shut off since 2015 by a previous court ruling, and Wind 2 has been operating only during the day after being found to exceed the background ambient noise at night by more than is allowed. The turbines have been challenged on several legal fronts, including the initial permitting, nuisance, and decreased property values. The town will now grapple with the costs of dismantling and paying off loans taken to erect the turbines; most of the financial obligations are to state-funded clean energy programs, and there is hope that some or most will be forgiven, though nothing is certain on that front.

In the recent case that apparently broke the camel’s back for the Selectmen, the judge affirmed a 2013 Zoning Board of Appeals nuisance ruling that called for the Building Commissioner to “take whatever steps necessary to eliminate the nuisance” at the property of Barry and Diane Funfar. The town appealed that ruling (legally challenging its own Zoning Board of Appeals), and this case was addressing that appeal. Several other cases remain in the pipeline, but the Selectmen’s decision should lead to an end to the legal battles.  While the judge in this case affirmed the nuisance experienced by the Funfars, he rejected the property value claim, noting that the most reliable data, from sales in 2012 and 2013, show a 3% decline in value in the Funfar’s neighborhood, not enough to point to the turbines as a deciding factor.

Mr. Funfar, who used to spend much of his time creating extensive gardens in his yard, had found himself unable to be outside, and eventually, even to stay in the house.  The Funfars had begun spending time in the Dominican Republic to escape the noise impacts.  “It’s rather euphoric,” he said after the ruling was announced. “We had a very good life here in our retirement, and I had my grandkids up here all the time helping me in my yard, and we can get some of that back now….It’s just such a tremendous relief to me and it’s still taken these past couple of days to sink in.”

Susan Moran, chair of the Board of Selectmen, noted that “As a board, despite all our personal differences and philosophies, we feel we have done all we can do to honor the town meeting ballot votes in 2013 as well as the 2015 nonbinding vote for the town to continue to operate the two turbines.” Appealing this decision and continuing to fight the other challenges would leave the town “right where we have been for the last seven years — with uncertainly and mounting legal expenses,” Moran said.

Christina C. Rawley, a member of the Falmouth Climate Action Team, which had fought to keep the turbines operating, said, “It’s very upsetting and extremely disappointing. We’re all sort of [taken aback] by it and trying to decide now what is the best way forward.” At the same time, Rawley stressed that “We are not coldhearted people by any means….and it was never anybody’s intent to harm anyone. How does a town or a nation make [its] decisions is what is at question here. How can we possibly meet the problems that are outstanding in our society?”

Since the very beginning of all this, the Falmouth situation has been a good example of the pitfalls of siting turbines close to densely populated neighborhoods. Few wind turbines have so many homes so close; at least 184 homes within a half mile of just these two turbines (a third turbine, privately owned, continues to operate; the legal challenges have been primarily directed at the town-run turbines). With so many homes so close, it was inevitable that a critical mass of impacted neighbors would arise.

In 2012, the town spent several months on a collaborative Wind Turbines Options Process that brought together town officials, impacted neighbors, and renewable energy advocates to explore whether the town could find ways to address or compensate those struggling with the noise. The possibility of the town buying some of the homes that had been most affected was on the table. At that time, about 10% of those within a half mile had lodged formal complaints (7 out of 18 homes within a quarter mile, and 12 of 166 from a quarter to half mile).  Likewise, in 2010, amidst the initial outcry about unexpected noise levels after the first turbine went live, the town sent log sheets to 300 homes, for residents to note the times when noise was an issue for them; about a dozen were returned, or under 5%. We can presume that more people were bothered than participated in these initiatives, but it remains the case that it’s generally a relatively small percentage of the population that is especially sensitive to noise impacts.

This is one reason that towns have taken a wide range of approaches to wind turbine siting, ranging from minimal setbacks of as little as 500-1000 feet (in areas that don’t mind that their residents will regularly hear the turbines), to moderate setbacks of 1200-2000 feet (accepting that some residents will experience troublesome noise at times), to precautionary setbacks of 4000 feet or more, which hope to avoid causing noise intrusions for even the more sensitive members of the community. All of these approaches can be justified; the question is how any given town chooses to balance economic benefit (often high in farm and ranch communities), climate-change mitigation (minimal for any given project, but necessary collectively), changes to sense of place (also a factor in many rural communities), and impacts on the most noise-sensitive or otherwise susceptible members of their community.

The reality of life-changing impacts on a relatively small proportion of those hearing turbines is an especially fraught element in the debate; many infrastructure projects or industrial developments cause similar rates of disruption among their nearby neighbors. Courts and local governments have come down on different sides of this sensitive question, and it is here where towns will continue to face the most difficult and distressing decisions.