Proposed regulations on wind power facilities could effectively quash the development of the alternative energy source in Eastern North Carolina.
By Rose Hoban
The development of wind power is facing some strong headwinds in the North Carolina Senate, including an unprecedented attempt to require state health officials to regulate a non-polluting energy resource.
Last week, lawmakers in that chamber greenlighted a bill that would add additional regulatory hurdles for the development of wind-power farms, like the one being developed by Amazon in the northeastern part of the state.
In addition to other permitting requirements, House Bill 763 would add a review by the state’s Department of Military Affairs to make sure any wind turbines wouldn’t block flight paths used by military planes and helicopters.
On top of that, new language added last week would require the Department of Health and Human Services to perform a “review of the potential health effects posed by the proposed facility.” The review would have to take into consideration the impacts of noise, shadow and flicker from wind turbines.
DHHS spokeswoman Alexandra Lefevre said her department does not perform similar reviews on coal-fired, biomass combustion, nuclear or other types of power plants. Those duties fall to the Department of Environmental Quality.
“The state environmental department has health-based air quality requirements for natural gas and coal facilities but not for energy resources such as solar and wind that don’t generate direct emissions,” DEQ spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco wrote in an email. “One example is the state air toxics rule, which sets limits for about 100 toxic air pollutants.”
But Hawco confirmed that having DHHS perform a health review would be unusual.
“Air quality is regulated by DEQ,” she said. “I don’t know if DHHS has a role in other health-related issues.”
When asked why a health review might be necessary, Senate majority leader Harry Brown (R-Jacksonville) responded that a lot of the issue concerned noise.
According to industry documents, wind-power turbines make noise of about 55 decibels, roughly equivalent to that of a home air conditioner.
‘Possible health effects’
When pressed further on the issue, Brown said there were still issues to be resolved.
“Otherwise you wouldn’t have a lawsuit,” he said.
Brown was referring to a suit filed against DEQ last fall by a Perquimans County couple, Stephen Owens and Jillanne Badawi, who claimed that the wind power installation Amazon was building about a mile from their home was affecting their health, along with eroding their property value.
The couple’s case has been handled by attorneys working with the conservative Civitas Institute Center for Law and Freedom.
“From my property, I can see and hear ongoing construction activity related to the wind energy project. That noise is disruptive to the peace and quiet in our neighborhood and it is annoying,” affidavits from Owens and Badawi said.
“I am concerned about possible health effects of the wind energy project which may, for example, consist of disruption of my sleep and over time, my ability to concentrate as well as benefit from the peace and quiet of our rural setting,” the affidavits continued.
But, last week, Administrative Law Judge Melissa Owens Lassiter judge threw the case out, writing that the Department of Environmental Quality “did not deprive Petitioners of property, did not otherwise substantially prejudice Petitioners’ rights, did not exceed its authority or jurisdiction, did not act erroneously, did not fail to use proper procedure, did not act arbitrarily or capriciously, did not act in contravention of required law or rule.”
Nonetheless, the language stayed in the bill. It easily passed two votes on the Senate floor on Monday evening, prompting a protest from the Sierra Club’s Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, who said the extra requirements were nothing but a ploy to make development of wind power more burdensome.
“DHHS doesn’t have the ability to recommend rejecting an approval for things like asphalt plants which can create negative air-quality impacts,” he said last week, noting this measure would single out wind facilities for review.
“Unfortunately we’ve seen several attacks on the clean energy industry,” Chicurel-Bayard said. “[The measure] would create regulatory burdens and more red tape specifically for the wind industry and no other form of energy production.”
If the bill is adopted into law, it would mean that any future plants would have to pass muster by three different state agencies, something that bothered Rep. Bob Steinburg (R-Edenton), who represents the area.
“It’s another hoop to go through. That’s basically what it is,” he said, noting that wind projects in the counties he represents total about a billion dollars in economic activity.
“So some could suggest, I’m not suggesting this, that this is another attempt to kill alternative energy in North Carolina,” he said.
The bill now goes to the House, where its fate is far from certain.