Sound and Fury: Wind Foe Unleashes Blast of Rhetoric | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Sound and Fury: Wind Foe Unleashes Blast of Rhetoric


Published October 25, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 31, 2017 at 4:05 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

On October 18, a prominent opponent of large-scale wind energy issued a press release to Vermont media that made some pretty serious charges against a lot of prominent people who don't agree with him.

Mark Whitworth, president of Energize Vermont, depicted the "wind industry" as "one of the most corrupting influences in Vermont," accused members of the legislature of taking orders from wind interests and claimed that "old-line environmental groups" had been "subverted" by the industry. Energize Vermont is one of two local groups opposed to large-scale wind; the other is Vermonters for a Clean Environment.

The occasion for this eruption is a set of proposed wind turbine sound rules developed by the state Public Utility Commission. As they stand, the rules would limit turbine noise to 42 decibels during the day and 39 at night; they would also establish minimum setbacks between turbines and nearby structures. The rules are currently under review by the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, a clear majority of whom have serious reservations about the PUC's work. They believe the decibel levels are too low, and they question the need for a setback requirement. (The committee may issue a final decision at a hearing set for Thursday at the Statehouse.)

Given lawmakers' reservations, Whitworth and his allies are wary. They see the rules as acceptable, if not ideal, and don't want any changes. And Whitworth's accusations reflect that mind-set. He believes that large-scale wind is a social and environmental menace — which means that anyone who supports it must be corrupt or unenlightened.

Or part of a cabal. "I disagree with the course of action that REV, VPIRG, VNRC, VCV, CLF, Iberdrola, Vestas, Nordex and David Blittersdorf are promoting," he wrote in an email after declining a phone interview. That's a remarkable statement, lumping together those "old-line environmental groups" (Renewable Energy Vermont, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Vermont Conservation Voters and the Conservation Law Foundation) with a Vermont renewables developer and three international corporations.

They're all on the same team, you see. Vermont's environmental advocates — except for Whitworth and his allies — have abandoned their principles and chosen to put Vermont's habitats and communities at risk. And why? The only explanation Whitworth can see is money; he speculated that the groups are doing the bidding of faceless, deep-pocketed donors.

"That characterization is baseless and silly," says VNRC executive director Brian Shupe, who adds that he is "not aware of any wind developer that supports VNRC's policy and advocacy work." However, he would see nothing wrong with accepting such donations, "but there would be no strings attached, as is the case with all our members."

VPIRG and VCV do not disclose information about donors, and the Internal Revenue Services does not require them to do so. This is also true of Energize Vermont and thousands of other nonprofit interest groups.

VPIRG executive director Paul Burns acknowledges accepting donations from wind interests, but he says there's no quid pro quo. Quite the reverse: It was VPIRG's pro-renewable stance that came first, not the donations. "We have supported renewables, conservation and efficiency throughout our 45-year history," he says.

Which is a point lost on Whitworth, who asked, "Why are the old-line environmental groups promoting wind instead of environmental conservation?" As Burns notes, the groups say they promote both. And they see large-scale wind as a necessary part of Vermont's response to climate change.

An October 12 LCAR hearing saw three Democrats take the lead in questioning the PUC rules: state Sens. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) and Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) and Rep. Mike Yantachka (D-Charlotte). Or, as Whitworth wrote in his press release, they engaged "in a chaotic policy-making effort that exceeds the committee's authority and expertise."

The latter is a key point, because LCAR's authority is narrow; it doesn't consider the wisdom of a rule but only whether it's within the bounds of legislative intent.

Lyons says that's exactly what the committee is doing. "LCAR is asking all the questions it needs to, so we know the rule is consistent with legislative intent," she says. "Asking pointed questions is part of the process."

In his email exchange with me, Whitworth accused LCAR members of having been "coached by lobbyists" at their October 12 meeting. This appears to center on a hallway conversation between Burns and Lyons, which raised suspicions among anti-wind onlookers. In fact, both Burns and Lyons say they were discussing an unrelated press conference scheduled for later that day — not the wind rules.

Whitworth does little to help his cause by claiming a widespread conspiracy among politicians, developers and environmental groups alongside arguments about mountaintop disturbance, wildlife habitat and turbine sound.

The root cause of all this alleged chicanery, according to Whitworth, is the wind industry's political generosity. "The industry has poured money into political campaigns," says his press release, without providing any specifics — which can easily be found on the Secretary of State's Office website.

A check of campaign finance reports for the 2015-16 cycle showed that Yantachka apparently received no wind money, MacDonald received $250 from the Vermont Renewable Energy Political Action Committee and Lyons got $250 from Blittersdorf. That's all.

Did that $250 influence MacDonald? "Heavens no," he says. "I support renewable energy. I have for years."

To his credit, Whitworth answered my questions at length, and I appreciate his participation. He'll probably be unhappy with this column; he believes that I'm biased in favor of wind. And yes, I have followed the issue for years, and I have found the arguments of the "old-line environmental groups" to be persuasive.

But my point here is not about the substance of the wind debate. It's about irresponsible rhetoric and the damage it does to one's credibility.

I will share one other quote provided by Whitworth in one of his emails that displays a profound bleakness of vision. It was written by novelist Jonathan Franzen and published in the New Yorker:

"The Earth as we now know it resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy. We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe."

So ... we give up? We ignore any opportunity to evade the apocalypse and hold tightly to the untainted remnant as the darkness envelops us all? How inspiring.

The Scandal That Maybe Wasn't

Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) got swept up in a political flurry last week for his part in enacting a 2016 law that wasn't the least bit controversial. At least it wasn't until the Washington Post and CBS' "60 Minutes" published a report asserting that the law is hamstringing the Drug Enforcement Administration's efforts to limit the illicit distribution of opioids.

According to whistleblower Joe Rannazzisi, a former DEA official, the law limited the agency's authority to issue "immediate suspension orders" blocking questionable drug shipments.

The bill's lead sponsor, Congressman Tom Marino (R-Pa.), had been President Donald Trump's choice to head the DEA. In the story's wake, Trump scuttled the nomination. The story also raised uncomfortable questions for Marino's cosponsors — including Welch, who immediately called for fresh hearings on the law and said that, if necessary, he would support its amendment or repeal.

But now, there are questions about the Post/"60 Minutes" report itself.

One of its key pieces of evidence is a dramatic decline in the issuance of immediate suspension orders, from 65 in 2011 to six so far this year. But, according to DEA statistics, that decline actually took place before April 2016, when the bill became law. In 2014 there were only eight such orders, and the annual total has remained in single digits ever since. That's a heck of a trick, having the effect precede the cause.

The DEA has a number of tools in its bag, including suspension orders, letters of admonition, civil fines, criminal penalties and memoranda of understanding. Recent years have seen a decline in the more confrontational methods and an increase in the more cooperative approaches.

Given the scope of the opioid crisis, it's fair to ask why the DEA seems to have given the industry more wiggle room, but the statistics do not reveal an overt connection with the 2016 law.

Welch professes a desire to get to the bottom of the whole mess. "I have suggested that we have the whistleblower testify before the [House Energy and Commerce] Committee," he says. "His accusations need to be aired. We need to satisfy ourselves that we're not doing harm."

Welch acknowledges that the Post/"60 Minutes" story explored some real, systemic problems in government, including the flood of money that engulfs the Capitol. Even Welch is not immune: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Vermont's lone congressman has received $136,000 from pharmaceutical and health product companies over the past 12 years.

"Campaign finance, the revolving door [between public service and industry] — there's a lot of cynicism," Welch says. "The pharmaceutical industry does have great influence in Washington. I can see why this story was pursued, but whether they got it right remains to be seen."

It also remains to be seen whether Welch got it right.

Media Note

Sad day at the shop today. One of Vermont's best journalists — and one of the stalwarts of the Seven Days news team — is leaving the profession. Statehouse reporter Terri Hallenbeck will step away from the daily grind on November 3 and start a new job 10 days later as assistant director of donor relations at Middlebury College.

"After 31 years in journalism and 13 years on the same beat, it's natural to seek new opportunities," she says. "I'm ready for a change."

Hallenbeck didn't ask her colleagues if they're ready for a change.

"I'll never forget how many legislators thanked — and congratulated — me when we hired Terri three years ago," says Paula Routly, Seven Days publisher and coeditor. "She was fair, they wanted me to know. We Seven Days editors soon had additional adjectives to describe Terri, including thorough, accurate, dogged, hardworking ... Three decades after she started working as a journalist, she still really cares about the people she covers."

As for me, I'll remember Terri quietly prowling the corridors of the Statehouse, never making a fuss ... but always getting the story.