Downhill from a solar project, concerns mount

East Lyme — Retired construction worker John Bialowans Jr. has a solar array on the roof of his garage, so he says his concern with the 24-acre solar field near his Walnut Hill Road home has nothing to do with fighting the tide of green energy.

The problem, he said during a tour of his 45-acre property last month, is that virtual "clear-cutting" of the forest by a Greenskies Renewable Energy subsidiary to make way for the Antares Solar Field just up the hill has left the watercourses on his land a silted mess, killing off the freshwater trout that once made the streams a haven for fishermen.

"There's erosion any place you look," the 70-year-old Bialowans said, glancing around as he perched over a stream bank. "I just wish somebody would take this serious."

Unsatisfied with the response from Greenskies, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection or the town Inland Wetlands Commission, Bialowans filed a lawsuit two years ago against the solar field owner, GRE 314 East Lyme LLC, claiming that lack of water runoff controls had affected the value of his property.

Bialowans, who is representing himself, did not specify any damage amount in the suit, though he said one person estimated it would cost about $400,000 to restore streams on his property to their original state. The civil suit, which he said already has cost him more than $100,000 in legal and other fees, will be going to trial Tuesday in New London Superior Court before Judge Cynthia K. Swienton.

"They thought I was going to roll over," Bialowans said, referring to Greenskies.

Greenskies, a Connecticut company co-founded by former state Sen. Art Linares, a Republican from Westbrook, was acquired in December 2017 by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Clean Focus Yield Limited.

In a December 2018 summary of problems resulting from construction of the East Lyme solar field, Southbury-based civil engineer Steven D. Trinkaus, hired by Bialowans, said that peak runoff volumes from the Grassy Hill Road site were "grossly" underestimated by Greenskies, partly because of changes in the soil resulting from the project's clearing of trees and partly because the effect of solar panel runoff was not taken into account.

He also cited, in an earlier report, stormwater-management and erosion-control "inadequacies" and the solar company's failure in some cases to follow through on its own engineering plans.

GRE is expected to call its own witnesses, including Jeffrey Peterson, a Wethersfield-based wetland and soil scientist for Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., who according to court documents is expected to dispute the extent of damage seen on Bialowans' property. He and another expert also will be questioning some of Trinkaus' technical findings, as well as the extent and cost of runoff damage.

Problems with the solar field started even as it was being constructed in 2014. According to articles in The Day, a downpour that brought several inches of rain in late March of that year led to the overflow of sediment-control basins and flooding downhill in the wetlands off Grassy Hill and Walnut Hill roads.

The town immediately issued a cease-and-desist order against Greenskies and Centerplan Construction Co., which built out the solar field, to force GRE to solve the problem. The order cited "sedimentation ... as a result of stormwater management system failures and failures of erosion and sedimentation controls."

GRE reportedly addressed retention-basin problems and erosion issues, but Bialowans said that whatever mitigation efforts Greenskies made after the order proved inadequate. Runoff after storms still sends water cascading down from the solar farm onto his property, mucking up the streams, he said.

"The stream is silted in; the trout are all gone," said John Jasper of East Lyme, a member of the Niantic River Watershed Committee, former Pfizer Inc. scientist and avid fisherman, who toured the site Sept. 17 with Bialowans.

The problem, he said, is that trout cannot spawn in streams with excessive runoff because they need gravelly areas to deposit their eggs, and silt covers over such sites.

"They're turning trout streams to drainage ditches," said Jasper, a longtime member of Trout Unlimited. "Once they're gone, they're gone."

Don Danila of East Lyme, a retired Dominion Energy fisheries biologist who worked for many years at the Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford and is a member of the watershed committee, said his group, which is tasked with protecting the area's watercourses, was aware of the solar field application shortly before a 2014 public hearing. He and one other member of the panel testified at a state Siting Council hearing, but they didn't have much time to do their homework, he said.

"We were naive," Danila said in an Oct. 15 interview at Starbucks in East Lyme. "We thought their stormwater plan was kind of sketchy, but we didn't know enough to say anything."

Danila said the Siting Council, without any expertise on staff to analyze the engineering plan, essentially rubber-stamped the project. But when problems arose with water runoff, environmentally minded people in the region started to take notice.

Among them was Deb Moshier-Dunn of Waterford, vice president of Save the River-Save the Hills, an organization that formed initially to oppose development in the Oswegatchie Hills area of East Lyme. A few years after approval of the East Lyme solar field, she led a successful effort to stop a proposed solar field in Waterford that would have been three times larger than the one in East Lyme and could have done much more damage to the environment, she said.

"We shouldn't have to trade off water quality for having solar put in," she said at Starbucks.

Moshier-Dunn's group came late to the East Lyme solar field controversy, but she now supports Bialowans in his efforts to have GRE address the situation.

"They're being litigious instead of fixing the problem," Moshier-Dunn said. "If they fixed the problem, they'd have goodwill."

In his lawsuit, Bialowans accuses GRE of polluting Latimer Brook, Cranberry Meadow Brook, the Niantic River, Long Island Sound and a small unnamed stream that runs through his property. He said that during "appreciable rain events," GRE's water-containment system has either failed or proved inadequate due to "faulty construction" and "negligent monitoring."

The Antares Solar Field, according to the suit, has about 17,000 solar panels designed to supply nearly 5 megawatts of renewable energy. But Trinkaus, for one, questions whether solar fields placed in a state not known for long stretches of sunny days is good policy, pointing to extremely low efficiency rates of about 25 percent initially predicted by Greenskies for its East Lyme solar field.

Moshier-Dunn wonders why companies don't pick less environmentally risky places to put their solar arrays, such as the new Costco building in East Lyme.

"We're not against solar at all," she said. "We want to put it in the most environmentally responsible areas."

Bialowans, who remembers picking blueberries as a boy on his grandmother's farmland and later made hay on the fields now occupied by solar panels, said he just wants Greenskies to fix the drainage problems instead of dragging everything out in court.

"They should have just fixed it five years ago," he said. "This was one of the best freshwater streams in all of Connecticut."

l.howard@theday.com

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