“Windfall in New York” (NY Times)

Sep 24, 2010

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—Stanley Fish, NY Times (9/20/10)

A few years back, a column I wrote recounting a successful effort by an alliance of citizens to beat back wind-turbine interests in Andes, N.Y., provoked a massively negative response. I was accused (a) of elevating the views I enjoyed from the windows of my second home above the interests of the society in encouraging green energy, (b) of displaying the usual latecomer’s indifference to the needs of the locals who had been living in Andes forever and (c) of not knowing what I was talking about when I described the construction (massively disruptive), effects (awful on land, animals and people), contribution to the grid (minimal) and financing (tax credits and accelerated depreciation rates) of the 400-foot-high towers with a 52-foot circumference base and blades 130 feet wide whooshing through the air at 178 m.p.h.

At the time of that earlier column, Meredith, another small town in Delaware County, seemed to be going in the other direction; the prediction was that the wind companies would succeed there.

But it didn’t turn out that way, and a new film by Laura Israel that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10 tells the story of what happened. The film is called “Windfall,” a pun on the fate of the wind project (it fell) and on the initial hope of some of Meredith’s residents that unanticipated revenue had fallen into their laps along with the opportunity to do the right environmental thing.

As the film opens, opponents of the turbines are recalling their early enthusiasm: “I saw one and it was beautiful.” “We felt we were helping the world.” But when a farmer signed an agreement and a test tower was erected on his land, a neighbor looked out the window and said to himself, “What’s that?”

Alarmed, he began to do research and spread what he took to be the bad news. One couple had gotten on board almost immediately, but then the wife went to look at a turbine and was horrified by the sounds it made. “Not that they were so loud; it was the idea that it was forever, for 25 or 28 years, for the rest of my life.” They got out of the contract, wrote a letter to their neighbors and became warriors in the wind wars.

The battle was fought politically in response to the tactics the wind energy companies always employ. First a few large landowners, usually farmers who have been in the area forever, are approached about signing up. At the same time, town supervisors and members of the town planning board, who are often landowners themselves, are targeted. Those who are approached are asked to sign a confidentiality agreement that prevents them from telling their neighbors what is going on. The result is that when the news does get out, an aura of inevitability has already been established; the feeling is “this is so big and so far advanced that there’s nothing we can do.”

Another result is the splitting of the town into two factions; the long-time “locals” and the “downstaters” or “outsiders” or “latecomers” (you’re a latecomer of you’ve lived there 20 years) who more often than not have the numbers but are weak politically because they are registered to vote in another state.

Associated Press Wind turbines like these, out West, are at issue in upstate New York.Former friends and once-friendly neighbors no longer talk to each other. Nasty signs and even nastier words pop up everywhere.

That’s just what the wind-energy forces planned. They look for relatively poor areas that display the desired population demographic — farmers with large landholdings and newcomers with large incomes — and then they pit the two constituencies against each other. You get more than a hint of the strategy in a presentation made at at least one meeting sponsored by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). The attendees were alerted to the nature of the enemy by an overhead depicting an armored man on a horse rushing forward with his lance pointed at a windmill. The caption read “When Don Quixote Attacks.”

The identification of the wind-turbine opponents with Cervantes’s unhinged hero made the point that they are (a) crazy), (b) delusional and (c) doomed to fail. The next overhead was more analytic; it characterized the deranged tilters-at-windmills as “often affluent” and “politically sophisticated.” The message is clear: Do you want those uppity types from the city telling you what you can do with land that has been in your family for generations?

So the wind interests inflict a triple injury — on the landscape, on the quality of life and on the social fabric of the community — and then, after a while, they depart, leaving behind what one resident of a turbine-infested town called a “giant junk yard.” (Yes, I know about decommissioning promises and bonds, but if you think the developers won’t devise several escape hatches when the time comes, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.)

All of this was avoided in Meredith when the “uppity types” organized, campaigned, had meetings, held rallies and turned the town officers out by a substantial margin. Happy ending, at least from the perspective of those who feared they would have to leave the rural paradise they prized so much. Of course not everyone is mobile enough to be able to leave; and had the wind hucksters succeeded, many would have been in the position of the residents of another New York region, Tug Hill, where an initial proposal of 50 turbines ballooned into 200.

“Windfall” devotes 20 chilling minutes to Tug Hill. Filmmaker Laura Israel took her cameras there thinking that perhaps the reality would not bear out the Meredith naysayers’ fears. But, she reports, it did: “When you look out the window in the Flat Rock Inn, you see turbines; when you look in the rear view window of your car, you see turbines; when you look at a reflection in a puddle, you see turbines; when I closed my eyes to go to sleep I saw turbines spinning; they did start to take on the characteristics of the creatures from ‘War of the Worlds.’” A native of the town (“I’ve been here my whole life”) stands in front of his property and asks the camera, “Would you consider retiring in my home?”

This man’s plaintive plea gives a new meaning to the acronym NIMBY (not in my back yard). When innumerable posters hurled the phrase at me in response to my earlier column, they were using it metaphorically. But for this poor guy (and all his neighbors), the phrase is quite literal. These towering monsters are in their back yards, and in their front yards, and in their lines of vision and hearing no matter where they happen to be.

So the question is, why should they say yes to the destruction of everything they value about their way of life? Why should they submit to being beaten over the head with a moral club — “you are just selfish elitists” —that has behind it almost nothing at all? There’s no benefit to the individual, who often ends up paying higher energy bills; little benefit to the town besides (sometimes) an initial cash payment; a questionable benefit to the grid, especially when you calculate the energy costs of installing these behemoths and the necessity of fallback energy when the wind doesn’t blow; but lots of benefits to the developers who are described by voices in the film as carpetbaggers, pod people and traveling salesman for whom the only green that counts is the color of money.

We all choose where to live (if we have the luxury of choice) for reasons that mean something to us. Are those reasons — rehearsed again and again by the citizens of Meredith and Tug Hill — negligible and dismissible? Do they count as nothing before the rhetoric of global warming (a real danger, but not one that’s going to be kept at bay by ruining small towns in Delaware County) and the naked greed of the large companies that put these things up? For the residents of the town of Cape Vincent, N.Y., these questions may be moot; just last week members of their town board and planning board — several of whom had lease agreements with the wind companies — gave the go-ahead to a turbine project despite considerable opposition (the estimate I’ve heard is by a ratio of 4-1) from property owners. The state attorney general’s office is investigating the possibility of a conflict of interest (do you think?) and so the battle may not be over.

Meanwhile, another battle, even larger, is being waged around the practice of “fracking,” the extraction of natural gas by the high-pressure pumping of chemical-laden fluids into rock formations. Rather than going up, as turbines do, fracking goes down, so the blight is, at least apparently, less visible. But the environmental worries are even greater, for there is evidence — especially in Pennsylvania where a well-blowout (sound familiar?) has led to the suspension by the state of the drilling projects of one company — that there is significant danger of water contamination and seismic activity. The industry of course denies these dangers and argues that a link between fracking and the pollution of ground water in Pennsylvania and Colorado is unproven. (Tobacco scientists, anyone?) Incidentally, the gas drillers decline to reveal the specific contents of the fluids used in the process. Not a confidence-inducer.

Like the turbine salesmen, the frackers work by stealth and turn communities into opposing camps engaged in class warfare, and they are now out in force in Delaware County, even as the turbine wars recede into history. On Sept. 8 in Delhi, the county seat, just down the road from Meredith, 340 people — a large number in these parts — rallied in the rain, carried signs and spoke against “multinational companies willing to poison us for profit” and against the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, which, they say, voted in favor of the gas industry without giving the other side a hearing. A seven-minute video captured their protest and an award-winning documentary, “Gasland,” provides the details (such as tap water ignited by a match) of what is happening nationally in a narrative the industry vigorously rebuts.

Maybe the next step will be a Hollywood treatment in the tradition of “Erin Brockovich,” “A Civil Action” and “The Insider.” Unfortunately, however, these movies are stories of heroes who bring dangers to light after they have materialized. The damage has already been done and many people end up living with it.

There is a David and Goliath aspect to these battles between heavily funded corporate interests and citizen activists who come out and stand in the rain with home-made signs. Will the NIMBY’s — a designation one should wear with pride — really be able to do something, as they did in Meredith, or will the forces of darkness masking as environmental crusaders prevail? Tune in.

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