Environment
1:18 pm
Thu September 29, 2011

Citizens' group raises concerns about wind turbines' proximity to gas pipelines

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By Bob Allen for The Environment Report

Officials in Mason County have given the green light to the first large scale wind farm near the Lake Michigan shore. Consumers Energy wants to have fifty-six turbines built and running before the end of next year. But some residents say in its rush to get going Consumers and the County are downplaying a serious threat to public safety.

Natural gas pipelines run through the site of Consumers Energy’s wind park south of Ludington.

A group of residents says at least half a dozen of the windmills are within falling distance of a gas line. And they say if a turbine falls it could cause a pipeline to break with the risk of an explosion.

The pipes are buried four feet deep. Each turbine is nearly fifty stories tall. And it has a gear box, called a nacelle, that by itself weighs something like eighty tons.

Evelyn Bergaila is a member of the Citizens Alliance for Responsible Renewable Energy.

“These turbines they can fall flat out. And having an eighty ton nacelle fall on top of a gas line would be a disaster for our community.”

Mason County approved a permit for the wind farm a couple of weeks ago.

The citizens’ group then sent out a package of material asking the governor, state lawmakers and regulators for help.

One of the pipelines moves sour gas that contains hydrogen sulfide. It’s a hazardous chemical.

If you inhale enough of it, it can kill you.

An engineer who installed sour gas pipelines for Dow Chemical says it wouldn’t even take a direct hit of a turbine onto a gas line to cause a rupture.

John Kreinbrink told Mason County officials in a public hearing the shock wave alone could split open a weakened pipe that operates under high pressure.

“From the e-mails that I’ve seen I think that sour gas pipeline operates at 900 psi. And the concentrations of sour gas in that line are immediately lethal.”

Michigan Public Service Commission responds to concerns

Gas pipelines are regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission. But the agency says it hasn’t run across this situation before. It doesn’t have a standard that says how far away wind turbines have to be from gas lines.

Dave Chislea is manager of gas operations for the MPSC.

He says he has searched around and hasn’t found any recommended setbacks in other states either. But he thinks the risk posed by a falling turbine is being exaggerated.

“I would say there’s a concern to some degree. But I’m not sure to the level that everyone else has made the concern.”

Chislea says it’s up to local governments to figure out how close turbines can be to existing gas pipelines.

Mason County doesn’t have a rule to specify that distance.

The County did say Consumers Energy had to relocate three of its turbines to get a permit. That was after the gas pipeline company complained.

In an e-mail obtained by the citizens group, the manager of the pipeline company said Consumers was steamrolling the project through and he would rather see more scrutiny than to sacrifice public safety.

Consumers declined to respond on tape for this story.

But County officials and Consumers, after a closed door meeting with pipeline engineers, say all the parties are now satisfied.

All except the citizen’s group.

Evelyn Bergaila agrees it’s a long shot that a turbine would topple over.

But she points out that it does happen.

“While the odds may be small, it doesn’t make any sense to be betting on the lives of the people in our community.”

Consumers Energy needs to get its Lake Winds Energy Park up and running to qualify for tens of millions of dollars in federal tax credits that are expiring at the end of next year.

The Citizens Alliance is considering whether it can afford to take the issue to court.