Western New York's Wyoming County is the state's top dairy region, producing more than a billion pounds of milk every year. It's probably been all about milk for a long time. But who knew that the winds of change could blow through the upstate county, carrying with them intrigue worthy of a spy thriller?
It's also really windy up there near Buffalo, so big wind developers have moved in, reportedly spending $655 million on three large-scale projects, with more to come. For local farmers, wind can be very lucrative, according to the Buffalo News. Landowners get as much as $8,000 annually for every turbine located on their property. And the towns themselves get direct payments, which has allowed at least three of them to virtually give up on collecting local property taxes.
There's a lot of money at stake, maybe too much, and when some neighbors are getting big annual payments and others get nothing but a view of wind turbines, dissension is inevitable. But bribes and threats seem a bit much.
In late October, two wind companies doing business in the area agreed to abide by a tough code of conduct put in place by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. As the New York Times described it, the code was the result of an investigation into whether the companies had "bribed or intimidated municipal officials to approve wind projects.... According to some complaints, local officials received gifts and jobs in return for their support [of the projects]."
In one case, according to the News, a local official voted for the project even though his brother-in-law had five turbines on his property. "He's not really a brother-in-law," the official said. "His wife and my wife are sisters."
Nobody got prosecuted as a result of the investigation. But under the new code, the two companies agreed not to hire town officials responsible for approving wind projects, or pay off those officials' relatives. The fine is $50,000 for a first offense, $100,000 for a second.
Things may calm down a bit because the worldwide recession has cut into the big money behind wind power. Global financing for renewables as a whole fell from $23.2 billion in the second quarter of 2008 to $17.8 billion in the third, and several wind companies have had to delay projects.
Still, there are nine large wind farms with 451 towers operating in New York State, and 840 more turbines at least in planning stages.
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