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Heated meeting as residents with fiberglass particles on land, trees and possibly ponds question wind turbine fire

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Representatives from NextEra Energy take questions in West Union, provide next steps

By Andrew Harris

It had to be one of the biggest town meetings in the history of the rural new York town of West Union.

Residents packed the town hall while the overflow sat on the front porch. The town highway superintendent brought in some extra chairs to accommodate the crowd. Luckily, the weather was about perfect, so the town hall doors were flung open for the front porch crowd and a breeze. Steuben County Legislator Fred Potter was in attendance along with team from NextEra.

It did get warm in the small town hall, and at times the conversation got heated. Fitting for a meeting about a very significant wind turbine fire.

On March 28, The Wellsville Sun and Hornell Sun reported that a fire broke out on a wind turbine in the Greenwood/Rexville area. The imagery was surreal, everyone who watched it burn understood the significance. Late last week the news started to emerge just how big of a deal the fire was. As the turbine burned, fiberglass insulation material burned into the wind and was distributed across a wide area in the tiny town in the southwestern corner of Steuben County.

Many in the crowd were residents who had fiberglass particles on their land, stuck in trees, and presumably in ponds within the distribution area. There was no mention of residents who may have health emergencies due to the fiberglass as had been previously suggested.

There were some tense moments and colorful language from all sides much of which was related to the history of the windmills, not the fire itself. Some residents who did not sign contracts to have windmills on their property were upset with what has happened. The back-and-forth arguments and accusations did not have to do with the fire or the cleanup, but their concerns with the original contracts and company.

The meeting was a regular monthly meeting of the town of West Union and the first portion of the meeting was standard small town fare: Residents complaining about the dust on the dirt roads and the damage to the roads during the construction of the wind farm. The wind turbine company, NextEra Energy, delivered some maps and a report of revenue sharing with the town. The town highway superintendent informed the board of a work accident that would require a short leave of absence.

Linda Mullen led the board through paying the bills and other standard town board meeting work like a seasoned public servant. Before the meeting turned to discussing the fallout from the fire she told the room firmly, “Be respectful or I’ll just end the meeting and we will all go home.”

Inside the West Union Town Hall, Linda Mullen at the helm

What brought the record crowd was next: Over an hour of residents, board members, and nearby landowners peppering the team that NextEra had on hand. They had a public relations guy and a local liason ready to greet and ask questions before and after the meeting. They also had three executives who each spoke but can be summarized as one statement:

NextEra wants to apologize for this unfortunate accident and for the stress it has caused the community. We are 100% responsible for the reclamation and cleanup of this mishap and will be held accountable by the town, the New York State Department of Ag and Markets, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. We are here tonight to best answer your questions and provide resources for you to get your issues resolved. Here are the most important phone numbers we can give you so you can contact the right person at NextEra:

Environmental Issues: Christian Keirnan 561 691 2781

Health and Safety: John Phillips 561 694 3312

Emergency/Urgent issues: 561 694 3636

Landowner Liason: Lori 607 425 6946

The crowd had no shortage of questions, here is a good sampling of the spirited back and forth:

Q: What was the root cause of this fire ?

NextEra: That is still under investigation

Q: What is the fiberglass debris actually made of and is it toxic?

NextEra: The material is very similar to the insulation used for homes. We do not believe it to be toxic but are still testing the debris we have recovered.

Q: What are the steps NextEra has and is taking to clean up this debris?

NextEra: Currently we have a crew of over a dozen employees walking a forty acre area and cleaning the debris by hand. We are considering the use of a propelled sweeper machine which is drive over manicured farm land and remove debris from the land.

Q: Is there a timeline for taking the destroyed wind turbine down?

NextEra: We have a contractor on site already who is helping with the process of bringing the damaged turbine down.

Q: Will that damaged turbine be replaced with a new turbine?

NextEra: Yes.

Q: If this material is determined to be toxic and spread over a square mile of land, what happens next?

NextEra: If that is the conclusion, our company will continue to work with the community to resolve the issues.

Q: Is there a list of potentially hazardous materials inside the wind turbine before it caught fire? Similar to a Material Safety Data Sheet(MSDS) that is provided with many retail products?

NextEra: Not that we have available. Many of the components of the turbine are outsourced and NextEra doesn’t manufactuar the turbine itself. This turbine, identified as #13, was made by General Electric.

Q:(From fire chief): Do you provide any training for local fire departments to be able to safely manage a wind turbine fire scene? We had a our whole crew standing under that fire, unaware of the possible hazards.

NextEra: We do offer that training and will be in contact to schedule with the fire department

Q: Why did it take NextEra over two weeks to start addressing the debris and being cleanup?

NextEra: We began working on the scene while the fire was still burning as we had staff on the ground at the time. We have been working on reclaiming this site and cleaning ever since. The process takes time considering that NextEra must: 1) Make sure the scene itself is safe, 2) obtain property access in order to start cleanup, 3)literally search the ground by hand using the staff available. NextEra started this process immediately.

Q: Has this ever happened to other wind turbines that NextEra operates and what happened in those instances?

NextEra: We can not discuss other projects.

Q: Why can you not discuss that and other important issues?

NextEra: We are representatives from the company who specialize in project management and operations. Our company has dedicated staff in our corporate offices who are dedicated to handling the issues and concerns that you have. We are not authorized or able to provide answers to those questions.

Q: How much oil is inside a wind turbine like #13 ? Did all of that oil burn off in the fire?

NextEra: Between 80 and 100 gallons, depending on the model of turbine. We are not sure if the oil burned off or if it is still encased in the damaged turbine.

Q: Next time this happens, can’t a fire crew address the fire from above to suppress the fire instead of letting it burn out ?

NextEra: We are not aware of any such option or how it would be provided

One lone voice, a local who works in the wind energy sector made a point to have his perspective heard. He reminded the crowd that all energy sources have risks and that wind energy is no different. His comment that, “this wind farm is one of the best things to ever happen to this town,” recieved huffs and puffs.

After repeated accusations of being ultimately responsible for the disaster, town board member Larry McCaffrey set the record straight about how and who approved the project to begin with. The wind farm exists in the town of West Union because enough landowners signed a lease with NextEra to begin the permitting process with New York State. State laws currently only provide local governments direct oversight on smaller wind and solar projects. Once the project reaches a certain size, the state takes over the process. A town like West Union can make some local restrictions and demands of the energy companies but does not have the power of approval or veto. According to McCaffrey, the town did make a number of demands of NextEra and will continue to hold them accountable.

The meeting allowed everyone who wished to ask a question, or make a short speech, for the public record. Now 20 days after the fire, the answers were thin from the NextEra contingent as they continue to investigate. This is the largest wind and solar company in the country: They are faced with potential litigation and high scrutiny from regulators. Like the affected landowners, they are not exactly happy about this accidental fire.

NextEra plainly told the crowd, on the record at a public meeting that the company position is that they are 100% responsible for the damage the fire has done. They provided contacts and phone numbers for those who have issues, questions, or find debris from the fire.

What happens next will be dictated by what happens when those impacted by the debris call NextEra.

How will the largest renewable energy company in the nation move forward with a little town of five hundred residents? Is the debris as benign as household insulation or are there toxicity issues? Will landowners who call NextEra for debris removal find a helping hand or a cold shoulder?

Because the Wellsville and Hornell Sun have been following this story since the initial blaze, we urge residents to contact us. What issues have your brought to NextEra and what has been the response?

We always accept well written and respectful letters to the editor, just email us

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