Garrett wind project halted temporarily over mud runoff

Constellation apologizes, but residents are angry

  • "I don't feel safe here," says Melisa Carrico of Garrett County, whose family lives near the construction sites for a Constellation Energy wind farm and substation. Carrico expressed dismay that Garrett County has no setback requirements for such projects.
"I don't feel safe here," says Melisa Carrico… (Photo courtesy of Melisa…)
April 02, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler

Maryland's first industrial wind farm has gotten off to a rough start, with construction temporarily halted after environmental regulators discovered mud washing from the remote Garrett County mountaintop site into a tributary of one of the state's wild and scenic rivers.

Constellation Energy has scrambled to put in stronger erosion controls as it erects more than two dozen 400-foot-tall turbines along an eight-mile stretch of Backbone Mountain. Constellation spokesman Larry McDonnell apologized and said the Baltimore-based company, which restarted work Thursday after more than a week's delay, is committed to doing the $140 million project right.

But the bumpy beginning has angered residents near the site where Constellation plans to build a substation to relay the electricity its turbines produce. And some again have expressed concern about the lack of local regulations on how close such energy facilities can be built to homes.

"I don't feel safe here," said Melisa Carrico, 42, a self-employed therapist who said she and her family have lived for a decade on Eagle Rock Road.

"We see some markers and the next day they're in here ripping five trees out at a time," she said. "They had 18-wheelers coming down this road [where] we have kids walking all the time."

Shortly after, she and neighbor Eric Robison saw muddy water flowing from the site. Robison said he contacted the Maryland Department of the Environment, which halted the work early last week.

"The water was unbelievable," said Robison, 49, a homebuilder.

The ridge drains into a tributary of the Youghiogheny River.

MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus said the contractor clearing the site for Constellation had failed to install a silt fence properly and that runoff controls were inadequate. She said officials are weighing whether to fine the company.

McDonnell called the episode "unfortunate." Heavy rain worsened the problem, but "it should not have happened," he said. "The one commitment we want to make is, we're going to do these things right, and if there's a problem, we're going to correct it."

Carrico said she was upset to find out that Garrett County would allow a substation so close to her home and does not require separation between turbines and houses. She said the nearest turbine would be at least a quarter-mile from her home.

County administrator Monty Pagenhardt acknowledged that wind farms - another project with up to 20 turbines is expected to start construction soon on Backbone Mountain - have been "an emotional issue" in Garrett. But other residents are supportive, and the county's commissioners have backed the energy projects for the jobs and revenue they could bring to the rural area.

As for Carrico's complaints about the substation being so near her house, Pagenhardt said, "That's property rights. ... It's in the middle of nowhere. They had their privacy for years, and that's being disturbed and interrupted. But the county has done what it had to do."

Unlike the rest of the state, Garrett does not have zoning to regulate development except in the resort area around Deep Creek Lake. Pagenhardt said the commissioners originally saw no need to restrict how close wind projects could be to homes, but in the past two years have asked the General Assembly to let them impose setback requirements.

John Bambacus, a former state senator from Frostburg, said Carrico is the first resident in Garrett to come to grips with the county's lack of setback requirements. Bambacus, who owns a cabin in Garrett, said the commissioners have ample authority to regulate such projects.

McDonnell said in an e-mail that he's sorry Carrico is upset and noted that Constellation is acquiring the project from the California company that planned it, Clipper Windpower. He said that firm was responsible for getting needed approvals and noted that there have been public meetings and extensive coverage of the project in the local newspaper.

"Obviously, when you're building a renewable energy facility of this kind there is a necessary construction phase," he wrote, "and we're prepared to do all we can during this phase to minimize the inconvenience for residents."

Carrico said she's always considered herself an environmentalist and favored wind as a clean, renewable energy. But with heavy trucks plying their dead-end road, she's fearful of letting her 13-year-old son walk down the road or her 1 1/2 -year-old grandson play in the yard.

"Our whole environment is gone," she said.

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