DEVENS — “I’m not satisfied with what they’re doing,” said State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who weighed in Tuesday on Evergreen Solar’s responses to months of persistent noise complaints.
The company’s Devens manufacturing plant operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Neighbors in Harvard are up in arms.
“I believe that the Devens Enterprise Commission (DEC) and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have to do everything possible to make Evergreen Solar be in compliance immediately,” said Eldridge.
“I cannot understand how a company like Evergreen Solar, which is probably one of the most technologically advanced companies in the world, could not figure out how to prevent noise pollution from affecting surrounding communities,” said Eldridge.
He and State Rep. Jennifer Benson, both of whom represent Harvard, were given a tour of the solar panel manufacturing plant Tuesday afternoon as part of a hastily called DEC-sponsored “meeting” run entirely by — and at the request of — Evergreen officials.
Evergreen Solar officials launched into a PowerPoint presentation they’ve used at recent public hearings, granted a guided tour of the roof and rear of the plant, and fielded questions from the roughly 20 attendees. Two DEP officials were on hand but issued no public statements.
The DEC had a public hearing on the Barnum Road business June 30, where neighbors again rallied to air complaints after months of noise flowing from the rear of the plant. Most have complained of the stress of the nearly constant, round-the-clock, audio assault.
No mention of this was made during that DEC meeting, but mere hours later the Boston Herald announced that the DEC had imposed $1,000 per week fines, and will withhold the permanent occupancy permit for the year-old plant until the noise abates. The current temporary occupancy permit lapses July 15. But Wednesday at noon the company denied receiving notice of any such fines. And, DEC member Armen Demerjian said no fines have been levied.
“One of the main things that I really hope is that the DEC ensures that the regulations it has applied to all companies within Devens are followed,” said Eldridge.
“That’s even more important when you consider the health of human beings,” he said. “That should be their top priority, not whether to allow a facility to keep running.”
“I’m requesting more information from Evergreen Solar and the DEC about ramping down their facility,” said Eldridge, who joined Benson to meet informally with four Harvard neighbors shortly after Tuesday’s plant tour. There were no neighbors present for the quickly called DEC meeting and tour itself.
“I visited some of the residents and it’s very clear that the health of these residents has declined significantly,” said Eldridge. “Also, their businesses have been negatively affected and Evergreen Solar needs to take steps to stop these negative effects.”
An Evergreen official cited the possibility of compensating five or six affected neighbors by temporarily housing them elsewhere until a solution is found. Final fixes for high priority noises are to be completed around Labor Day weekend.
It’s a delicate position for the state to be in, since it is a major player in the funding for the plant’s construction. The Boston Herald states the $200 million plant received about $40 million in state subsidies, including $23 million in state grants, $17.5 million in low-interest loans and a low-cost, 30-year lease of the state-owned property.
Assessing the problem
The company insists it’s getting a handle on the noise through the installation of several silencing devices for its external machinery located on the roof and in the rear of the plant. The stated goal is to not only meet, but beat, the maximum decibel levels allowed. The company states its also analyzing ways to shift workload demands on machinery, particularly a series of nine massive air conditioning towers, in an effort to lower the noise level.
The Harvard Board of Selectmen recently voted to ask the DEC to shut down the solar panel manufacturer’s round-the-clock operations due to the noise. Harvard Selectmen Chairman Ron Ricci and Selectman Tim Clark were in attendance at the Tuesday meeting.
DEC Land Use Administrator Peter Lowitt says the board continues to monitor Evergreen Solar’s progress. Regarding the Harvard Selectmen’s letter to cease 24-hour operations, Lowitt said, “we hired a third party process engineer to see if there’s any unintended consequences due to that request.”
Evergreen Vice President for Operations Rodolpho Archbold explained that it is not possible for the plant to shut down overnight. He said it would take some 20 hours daily to cool down critical machinery — from 1,400- to 300-degrees — for each shutdown, and require the need to “evacuate” chemicals from the plant into either the Devens’ wastewater system or to be trucked off site. “It would leave just four-five hours of operation a day,” he said. Archbold and Lowitt both stated it’s uncertain at this point if the company’s wastewater permit allows for such dumping after filtering.
Tom Cusson, the Worcester DEP’s air quality director, was present for the tour. So was Martin Suuberg, the DEP regional director for the central office. Suuberg answered simply “we do” as to whether the DEP has purview over the Evergreen plant, but he also stated the Harvard Board of Health does, too, with regard to noise complaints.
“We are dumbfounded”
Neighboring Dunroven Farm on Old Mill Road in Harvard agreed to host one of two off-site sound monitoring devices for a week in the spring for the DEC to monitor plant noises. Reached for comment Tuesday, farm co-owner Jonathan “Jay” Wallace confirmed that the farm has not been contacted by company representatives to make any financial compensation offer. Humans, dogs and horses have all been affected by the aural assault, according to several Harvard residents.
Wallace explains that the farm now has its own monitoring devices in an effort to confirm the noise levels. He states that the noise measurements hover some 5 decibels above allowable limits. He says some sustained blasts are some 15 decibels above allowable levels, especially noise generated from daily argon and nitrogen gas deliveries to the rear of the plant.
“We are dumbfounded. How have the laws and regulations that are supposed to protect the public been so misshapen that anyone can continually cause harm to another in full view of the public square and not be stopped immediately,” said Wallace. “No one at the DEC, no one at Evergreen is saying that they are not causing harm. They admit it, but continually either hide behind the regulatory process or use/abuse the regulatory process in order to protect themselves from liability, or culpability,” he said.
“The silence of (Evergreen CEO) Richard Feldt on this issue is as disturbing as the noise from his plant,” said Wallace. Clearly exasperated, he added, “the lack of regulatory will on the part of the DEC is especially disturbing in light of the failures of other government regulatory bodies recently that have bankrupted Fortune 500 companies and permitted the likes of Madoff. Our system of checks and balances is broken.”