Life by Tug Hill

People remember Tug Hill as gorgeous and wild. No more.

It’s Friday evening and I just got off the phone with a middle-aged lady who lives on the Tug Hill Plateau near Watertown, New York (USA).  What makes this banal fact remarkable is that the woman now finds herself living in a mind-blowing forest of 40-story-high industrial wind turbines. 

The developers (Is this the right word to use for these people?) have given it the quaint name, Maple Ridge Windfarm.  Everyone else in Upstate New York knows it as the Tug Hill Plateau:  a high flat tableland famous for its views of the Adirondacks (to the south), Canada (to the north), and L. Ontario (to the west).  Also a serious migratory bird flyway.  People remember Tug Hill as gorgeous and wild.

No more.  Sarah (I have changed her name to protect her privacy) was eager to talk.  I found her full of homespun wisdom and quick to chuckle, even though she was obviously in pain.  This place which has been home and memories is now a nightmare.  When the turbine salesmen rang her doorbell a year ago to ask what she thought “about renewable energy” (yeah, that was their opening line), she soon steered the conversation around to the stupendous view.  Look there, she said, pointing to the mountains:  this is what I cherish. 

No more.  She is now surrounded by colossal industrial wind turbines.  How many? I asked.  Fifteen to twenty within a mile radius, she replied.  I could hear her despair, her disbelief.  The wind companies (Zilkha and PPM) spent the summer feverishly cobbling together their Goliath machines:  187 in this first phase of the project.  There are more to come in Phase II.  And who knows how many more phases.  Besides the dozen plus overshadowing her, there is a power substation mere yards from her backdoor, in a ravine she remembers well as a child.  (The ravine was often struck by lightning, she recalled, as she wondered if this was the best spot for a power station.  Fond memories often bubbled to the surface as we talked—a surface now rendered incomprehensible.) 

Sarah took the company-sponsored bus trip to Fenner, NY, to inspect Fenner’s 20 turbines (“Go to Fenner and see for yourself”:  they got the same cheery line we get here, in Clinton & Franklin counties).  She thought the Fenner turbines huge, but, it turns out, not as huge as what she now has next door.  Besides, that was only 20; this is 187.  The number boggles her mind.  She met a lady in Fenner with a turbine or two on her property.  She motioned Sarah aside and whispered not to trust PPM Energy.  The woman and her husband are not getting what PPM promised, and are suing as a result. 

PPM and Zilkha totally snowed Sarah’s town board.  The wind guys promised the sun and the moon; the board swooned and said amen.  The wind guys managed to talk the town into a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) rather than taxation, to Sarah’s disgust.  She was clearly dubious the salesmen would deliver what they promised.  And when it came to a public hearing, the town board hid the announcement so cunningly that Sarah, along with the majority of the town, was totally unaware of it. 

The construction has shattered their lives.  Noise.  Roads cratered and potholed and rutted.  Trees chain-sawed and bulldozed into piles.  Giant pits bored into the earth and filled with rebar-reinforced concrete.  Finally, the towers and 40-ton propellers and 60-ton nacelles stacked atop all this.  Literally, skyscrapers. 

The turbines are not yet running; they will be in another few months.  Sarah dreads that day:  the pulsed thump thump thump; the huge shadow from blades sweeping the landscape, everywhere you look (morning & evening).  Sarah has sensitive hearing; she’s especially worried about the low frequency thump, night and day, weeks on end.  Already she struggles with 187 flashing red lights.  And she tries to compose herself over the floodlit power station next door.  When she telephoned the project manager to ask why those confounded lights need to be left on all night, he got testy and dismissed her. 

The floodlights still drill into her windows. 

Welcome to Maple Ridge Windfarm.  A blasted, ruined, industrialized landscape where there was once serenity.  And beauty.  Sarah wandered down to the old family farm earlier this fall.  She stood on the road and gazed upon vandalism.  And wept.   

She’s angry.  She feels lied to.  She has a neighbor, a young man and his wife and little children, who is also outraged.  The man is building a lovely home; he moved here because of the magnificent location, the views, the beauty.  Now, this.  He worries about his kids’ health once the generators fire up. 

Sarah feels helpless, and kept saying she thinks she will move.  Driven from her home.  She worries no one will buy it, or will do so at a fraction of its pre-turbine worth.  She foresees town revenues plummeting as people refuse to pay the tax on turbine-depreciated property. 

In the end, she said, she and her neighbors were not organized well enough to stop the wind salemen.  The property owners and town fathers fell in line perfectly, like sheep to be slaughtered.  Yet many of them don’t live on their land, or have moved elsewhere, leaving Sarah and her neighbors to deal with this horror. 

I urged her to start a daily journal of her experiences and the “progress” of the wind power project.  I also urged her to take photographs of her landscape and the windmills.  And I suggested she get an electrical engineer to check for ambient underground current, so she can sue Mr. Moore and co. for stray current once the turbines go on line.  I suggested, too, that she and her neighbors get a complete physical and neurological exam before the turbines are fired up, again, to establish a medical baseline for future medical problems. 

I told her, finally, I had seen the amazing photograph of the Tug Hill turbines in the Watertown Daily Times last month.  “Yes,” she mused, “that was taken near my home.”  Then added, “It’s actually worse than the picture shows."

NOV 4 2005
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