The sound is not loud, but in the distance, a rumble thrums through the darkness, coupled with a soft, pulsing whoosh.
Standing on the porch of her Fairfax home, Melodie McLane motions toward the red lights standing sentinel high above an unseen ridgeline a mile away.
“It’s unnatural,” she says of the noise. “… It’s unnatural, so it feels wrong. It plays with your mind.”
While McLane and her family say the sound hasn’t caused health problems, they say it has hurt their quality of life since the facility was completed at the end of 2012.
“There are a lot of people who claim to be sick,” McLane says. “I can honestly say, we’re not to the point of being sick. It’s (more of) a ‘wake you up in the middle of the night and you cuss and moan and can’t go back to sleep.’”The sound led McLane and her husband, Scott, to file a motion for relief against Burlington Electric Department and Georgia Mountain Community Wind, the turbines’ owners.
Right before Christmas, the state filed a response that marks a potential turning point in the case.
The Vermont Department of Public Service, for the first time, acknowledged that wind farm neighbors sometimes experience severe negative effects from turbines spinning, she says.
The department’s Dec. 23 filing describes the McLanes’ complaints as “credible and serious” and states there is evidence “of a significant impairment of the quality of life for some nearby residents.” There is reason to believe, the department determined, that the McLanes potentially suffer significant adverse health effects.
But the department, whose role is to represent ratepayers, says the state’s quasi-judicial regulatory body, the Public Service Board, will not take up the case. That’s because the department says any harm caused by the noise from the wind turbines doesn’t put public health at risk.
The DPS recommends the McLanes sue those responsible for the noise. Its recommendation doesn’t name David Blittersdorf, or Georgia Mountain Community Wind, of which he’s a majority owner, but to the McLanes, he and his company represent one of two sources of their hardships.
The McLanes characterize the state as their other antagonist, for allowing the project in the first place, but also for refusing to acknowledge the validity of their complaints once the turbines started turning. This is what seems to have changed recently, Melodie McLane says.
“We were surprised by the wording of the department’s reply,” she says in a recent interview. “We expected them to totally discount all of it. For them to acknowledge the noise is a problem, that’s never happened before.”
However, according to Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia, the state hasn’t diverged much from past statements. Research undertaken with Vermont’s Department of Health established that turbines don’t threaten public health, he says.
That doesn’t mean people are not harmed individually by the turbines, Recchia says.
The distinction between public and private harm determines who should decide the case, he says. Private causes of action — a legal dispute between two private parties — are more properly heard in court, not before the Public Service Board, he says.The department in its most recent filing underscored more emphatically than it has in the past the validity of the McLanes’ complaints, Recchia says, but he calls it a difference of degree.
“It’s not a change in our policy or position,” Recchia says. “It’s probably more explicit than we’ve had an opportunity to be in the past. We haven’t had a venue to be that explicit before.”
Martha Staskus, who represents the turbines’ owners, Georgia Mountain Community Wind, says she is not surprised by the department’s recommendation that the McLanes sue.
“The department confirmed that the project is operating in a manner that does not pose adverse health or safety impacts on its neighbors,” she wrote in response to emailed questions. “It is not surprising the department might suggest another venue for deciding private rights outside of the board’s jurisdiction, though we certainly don’t think there is any basis for a claim.”
But a lawsuit is out of the question at this point, Melodie McLane says. She and her husband don’t have the resources to take on a large company in court. Even if they did, they believe they would not be able to find reputable attorneys who are both versed in wind-related law and not already employed by developers.
Unwilling experts on decibel detection
The McLanes don’t intend yet to sue, but neither are they likely to sell their house.
“Who’s going to buy our house with that hanging over it? That’s something we’d have to reveal in any real estate transaction,” Melodie McLane says. Georgia Mountain Community Wind hasn’t offered to buy the property or to compensate the family for the harm to their quality of life, she says.
The developer’s representatives did not respond when asked whether the company ever reimburses individuals who are adversely affected by projects.
Speaking on the porch of their home, Scott McLane says he and his wife are attached to the property.
Rough-hewn from stone and timber, the home is post-and-beam construction.
“It’s not lagged together or bolted, it’s all doweled,” he says. “It’s been a labor of love.”
The couple bought the property in 1987, the year they married. They took out a construction loan and lived in a trailer on the property until they finished the house and moved in.
“We bought it as a hay field and woods,” Melodie McLane says. “We cleared it by hand, we built it by hand — we have so much invested, financially and emotionally.”
On their porch, in the early December dark and the cold, over the rumble and the swish, the McLanes talk eagerly of decibel levels, and of the differences between methods of measuring the decibels, and about frequencies and intermittence and sound pressure. All of this they’ve come to take an interest in since the four-turbine wind facility went up.
The sound of the turbines, they say, isn’t supposed to exceed 45 decibels outside or 30 decibels inside the home.
They own what appears to be a high-quality sound meter, and consult it with an oracle’s gravity. Their avidity in matters of sound resembles that of enthusiastic hobbyists, but of the most unwilling kind.The McLanes seem as upset by the quality of the sound as by its volume.
The noise from the turbines is not loud; on the McLanes’ porch it’s comparable to the noise level of a refrigerator, a loud computer, or a rather quiet forced hot air heating system. The spinning turbines can throb like a heartbeat, though, and produce a rumble that Melodie McLane says often invades her home’s interior.
As I listen inside the house, my observations prove inconclusive. What is detected could have been a memory of the noise, or the sound of a modern home’s interior, or the noise itself. It’s hard to tell, because it registers only very faintly.
Scott McLane says that with the doors and windows closed, he can’t hear it inside the house, either. “I cut wood, I shoot guns — I can’t hear it, but Melodie says she can.”
Back outside on the front porch, the sound is drowned out by a car going down the dirt road past the house maybe 150 feet away.
As dawn illuminates the landscape, and the towering structures spinning above the ridge grow visible, the noise diminishes, until a couple of hours after sunrise it’s indistinguishable from the rustling of the breeze through the surrounding forest.
The sound clearly unsettles the McLanes when it’s present, but it’s not always present.
I had asked to be invited to the house when the sound is unacceptably loud, and weeks elapsed before Melodie McLane called.
“We don’t hear them all the time,” Scott McLane says. “There’s lots of times we don’t hear them. But there’s lots of times we do hear them, and we only complain a fraction of the time, because it never goes anywhere.”
The sound is loud enough to bother Melodie McLane about 50 percent of the time, she says. Her husband says he’s bothered by it about 10 percent of the time, but with the caveat that he doesn’t hear well.
Blittersdorf sees ‘totally different’ future
Weeks earlier, during a visit to the top of Georgia Mountain, enormous machines rotated with only a faint swish marking their progress through the air. The tips of the blades move at speeds up to 200 mph, according to Blittersdorf, the majority owner of Georgia Mountain Community Wind.
The wind at that time blew appreciably less than it did later during the visit at the McLanes’.
Blittersdorf speaks like an engineer, clearly excited by material phenomena. He designed and built his first windmill as a child, he says, and never lost the fascination.
“I love them,” he says. “I think they’re beautiful. These large machines, they’re graceful.”
Blittersdorf appears to believe strongly that what he does brings good into the world, or at least reduces harm.
“I’m in it for a lot of reasons, and it’s just not greedy making money, like a lot of opponents say,” he says.
He speaks of scarcity and peak oil.“Most people understand that when you see the turbines turning, it’s clean power,” Blittersdorf says. “We need a future that’s totally different than what we’ve spent the last 100 years doing, which is just consuming fossil fuels.”
Beneath one of the machines, a low rumble and a whirring sound become audible as the nacelle, which is the capsule between the rotor and the tower, turns into the wind.
The four 2.5-megawatt turbines produce the equivalent of 8 percent of the energy Burlington consumes.
It would take 15,000 home-scale turbines to produce the same amount of energy, Blittersdorf says, and it would cost 10 times as much.
Solar installations scale down efficiently, but wind turbines don’t, he says.
“That’s why you don’t see small wind turbines. It’s not economical,” he says.
Nevertheless, Blittersdorf says, Vermont is likely to see smaller wind turbines in the future, built on lower hills.
Blittersdorf explains that a number of charges have been brought against Georgia Mountain Community Wind by people he refers to as the opponents.
Opponents say turbines are inefficient, Blittersdorf says. Comparing the turbines to coal-fired power plants, which use 20 percent to 30 percent of their energy to run the plant itself, he says, “these machines have very little losses — on the order of a half of a percent.”
Opponents say he shouldn’t use Chinese-built turbines, according to Blittersdorf. But the Chinese-made Goldwind turbines on Georgia Mountain contain 55 percent American material, as opposed to GE’s, which are made with only 40 percent American material, he says.
“Opponents say we kill a lot of birds,” Blittersdorf continues. Last year the Georgia Mountain turbines killed one bird and three bats, none of them endangered, he says.
Opponents say they suffer from “wind turbine syndrome,” a host of ailments some attribute to proximity to the machines, he says. “It’s up here,” Blittersdorf says, pointing to his head.
Still, he acknowledges, the machines aren’t silent.
“It’s not like under the sound standards you won’t hear something,” he says. “You’ll hear something, but it’s not very loud.”
Blittersdorf says he gets the greatest number of complaints on high-wind days, but says the turbines actually produce the most sound at speeds much lower than at their top operating wind speed of around 25 mph.
He compares the sound of the turbines to that of Interstate 89, audible far below the mountain. His company headquarters is in Williston, not far from the Burlington airport.
“You can’t hear anything (but the plane’s engine) when they take off,” he says.
At the bottom of the mountain, about two-thirds of a mile from the top and on the other side from the McLanes’ house, the sound of a nearby stream is the only audible noise.
Blittersdorf says he’s aware the sound and appearance of the turbines bother some folks. At the same time, he says, fossil fuels carry greater harms than those associated with noise and aesthetics. There are larger issues at stake, he argues.
“I want to change the world,” he says. “We have to end up with renewables, and it’s damn hard for some people to change, but there’s a lot of change that needs to happen.”
The stream gently murmurs next to the dirt road where Blittersdorf’s truck is parked. Turbine blades can be seen slowly turning on top of the mountain above trees that obscure all but the upper half of the two nearest machines.
“I just love looking at these wind turbines,” he says. “I like things that move. Any days I get depressed, I’ll come up here and sit at the bottom of the turbine. Especially on windy days, when these things are putting out a lot of power — these things are humming. On those days we put out half of Burlington’s power. It’s amazing.”