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Unsung Hero: Annette Smith battles entrenched power — and old friends

By   /   February 22, 2017  /   No Comments

Part 8 of 9 in the series Unsung Heroes

Photo courtesy of Annette SmithAfter years of battling the powers that be in relative anonymity, in January the Burlington Free Press named Annette Smith “Vermonter of the Year.” That’s a much kinder title than some others have applied.

The Bennington Banner once labeled her “a one-woman wrecking crew.” Off the record, green energy lobbyists have been even less kind.

When multibillion-dollar industries want something done in a small rural town, many people would assume it’s a lost cause for any average resident to fight back.

Ms. Smith, who lives in the rural town of Danby, tucked into the northwest corner of the Green Mountain National Forest, chose not to be that average small towner.

In the spirit of Hollywood stories like that of citizen-turned environmental activist Erin Brockovich, Ms. Smith was able to live the real thing — and even got support from the real-life Brockovich in the process.

It began in the 1990s, when Ms. Smith took on a natural gas power plant and pipeline project backed by GE, New York State Electric & Gas, and Iroquois Gas Transmission System planned for upstate New York, with a pipeline running through Bennington and up to Rutland.

She learned the ins and outs of dealing with select boards, and the challenges of being a stranger in a small town making a case many in the town didn’t want to hear. She succeeded by educating herself, then educating others.

Eventually, Democratic Gov. Howard Dean suggested to the gas companies that they throw in the towel and take their ambitions elsewhere. And they did.

Out of that successful campaign, Vermonters for a Clean Environment was born.

Now, though, she finds herself doing battle with some of the same people she once considered allies. The adversary is no longer a pipeline carrying a fossil fuel, but subsidized wind energy companies who argue that they are the ones protecting the planet from dire consequences of climate change.

“I know so many players who I used to work with who are not my friends anymore because of industrial renewable energy,” said Ms. Smith.

Measuring the potential benefits of the renewable energy produced against the destruction of Vermont’s natural beauty, Ms. Smith chose the ridgelines and the small-town citizens who live in their shadow.

A supporter of clean energy, Ms. Smith notes that with industrial wind, the 400-to-500 foot turbines clang considerable noise pollution on wildlife and humans alike.

The projects also often require blowing off the tops of mountains, disrupting sensitive environments and redirecting natural water flows.

“They sincerely believe that what they are doing is for the greater good and it’s going to save the planet,” she said. “But what I don’t understand is how they can knowingly inflict harm on people like the Therrien family and their children, and like the Nelsons,” two Vermont families forced from their homes by the loud noise produced by nearby wind turbines.

Ms. Smith was instrumental in scrutinizing and exposing the shortcomings of Act 174, a measure enacted last year that gave communities some say in the siting process of industrial scale renewable energy.

On Election Day 2016, the two southern Vermont towns of Windham and Grafton overwhelmingly rejected an industrial wind project planned for the area. The vote was nonbinding, but the developers said they would walk away.

Ms. Smith was so successful in educating and guiding communities through the quagmire known as the Public Service Board hearing process that she started to garner the attention of the state’s top legal authority. Attorney General William Sorrell.

Mr. Sorrell looked into charging her with practicing law without a license, a misguided crusade that was eventually dropped amid a lack of evidence and mounting public support for Ms. Smith’s cause.

In a twist of fate, Ms. Smith now credits Mr. Sorrell’s misstep for helping to make her a household name in Vermont.

“I started doing this because nobody else was speaking up and somebody had to do it,” she said. “That really was my whole motivation.”

For confronting entrenched state officials and for risking friendships when she saw a greater cause at stake, Annette Smith is an Unsung Hero.

Part of 9 in the series Unsung Heroes

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Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog. A Seton Hall 2005 graduate, Bielawski has been writing articles for various publications in and around New York City; Seoul, South Korea; and Vermont. He’s a writer for the Hardwick Gazette, keeping track of rising school budgets and rural Vermont issues. He likes to write about energy and the environment, looking for angles not seen in mainstream media. At home, he’s busy looking after two little boys. During free time, he loves to watch Stanley Kubrick films on Netflix.