Probe of wind farm noise complaint recommended
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Public Service Commission staff has recommended rejecting a request by the operators of a Mineral County wind farm to dismiss a homeowner's complaint about excessive wind turbine noise.
Instead, the PSC should continue looking into noise and other issues involving Pinnacle Wind's 23-turbine Green Mountain operation near Keyser, according to a joint staff memo filed last week.
Richard Braithwaite, whose home lies about a half-mile from the nearest Pinnacle Wind turbine, said in a complaint filed in February that he has recorded readings as high as 83.4 decibels outside his home, and indoor readings as high as 63.6 decibels, since the turbines began operating in November.
While there are no federal noise regulations regarding wind farms, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends outdoor noise levels of no more than 55 decibels to protect public health and safety in residential areas, farms and other places where people spend time outdoors.
Several states with wind power projects have established their own wind turbine noise limits -- Oregon's indoor limit is 36 decibels -- but West Virginia is not among them.
"Three mornings ago, it got up to 87 decibels outside," Braithwaite said in a telephone interview on Monday. "When the wind's coming in from the west, it sounds like a train rumbling in the distance. When it comes in from the east -- that's when the back of the windmill is pointed at me -- it sounds like an airplane circling."
Braithwaite said his home's east-facing picture window now frames four turbines from Pinnacle Wind LLC's Green Mountain wind farm.
"I used to love seeing the sun coming up," he said, "but now, with all those wind turbine blades rotating, it's like a strobe light going off inside my house, even when the curtain's there. When the sun's coming through the blades, I get these crazy migraines."
A response to Braithwaite's complaint by Pinnacle Wind LLC contained no technical information regarding turbine sound levels and failed to address any of Braithwaite's concerns, according to an engineering memo prepared by PSC technical analyst Donald E. Walker.
Instead, the company asked the PSC to drop Braithwaite's complaint on grounds that no direct term or condition contained in the text of the PSC's order allowing the project to move forward had been violated.
"It is ludicrous to argue that because the Commission possibly had incorrect information before it when it made its decision, it cannot now review that decision," wrote PSC Staff Attorney John Auville. "Therefore, Staff believes Pinnacle's argument that this issue is beyond Commission review should be rejected."
If noise levels prove to be as high as Braithwaite alleges, Pinnacle would be "exceeding the noise levels inside a person's home that the U.S. EPA believes is safe outside a person's home," Auville wrote. "Had the Commission had this information before it when deciding whether to issue this certificate or not, the Commission very well may have placed further conditions on this certificate to avoid exceeding the EPA's noise guidelines for residential areas."
Walker wrote that he contacted Pinnacle officials in late March about issues raised in Braithwaite's complaint and was told that "the offensive noise emanating from the machinery is caused by a cooling system that is an integral part of the wind turbines. The company has taken preliminary sound level measurements, and recognizes that there is an issue which is being addressed with the manufacturer, Mitsubishi, which is located in Japan."
Mitsubishi has designed a muffling system for the turbines "which will hopefully mitigate the sound problem," Walker continued. "The company has installed the prototype on one of the turbines which is currently being tested. The pending results will determine the next step in resolving the noise-related issue of this complaint."
In his complaint, Braithwaite asks the PSC to order Pinnacle to shut down operation of the wind turbines from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., until the noise issue is addressed.
"When they started putting these turbines in, I never went to any of the meetings they had about them," Braithwaite said. "I thought since it was their land, they could do anything they wanted to on it. But I never thought they'd be making the turbines so close and so loud."
Auville wrote that Pinnacle should file the results of noise studies it has made at Green Mountain with the PSC, along with any plans to resolve noise complaints.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.