Saturday, January 2, 2010

Wind turbine debate swirls (Wolfe Island)

Wind turbine debate swirls


(January 2, 2010)

From his Kingston home, Ontario Environment Minister John Gerretsen holds a commanding view of the wind turbines rise in the distance from Wolfe Island.
It's New Year's Eve and Gerretsen is clearly energized by the recent climate change conference he attended in Copenhagen.
He believes Ontario is on the right track with plans to shut down its coal-fuelled electricity plants aided, in part, by renewable green energy such as the wind power generated by the 86 turbines on Wolfe Island -- the second-largest project of its kind in Canada.
"They are part of the future," said the MPP for Kingston and the Islands. "It's a balancing act, but as far as I'm concerned, it's the way to go."
Wolfe Island is very much a community hanging in that new sustainability balance.
Though touted as a green, environmentally friendly project, a vocal group of islanders under the banner WIRE (Wolfe Island Residents for the Environment) has fought it every step of the way.
One of their main concerns has been the potential effects the spinning turbines may have on residents' health.
Gerretsen sides with the findings of a report released in mid-December. Commissioned by the industry-supported Canadian and American wind energy associations, the study -- Wind turbine sound and health effects, An expert panel review -- suggests wind turbines pose no health risks to people.
The report boils much of the neighbours' concerns to "annoyance."
"Some people may be annoyed at the presence of sound from wind turbines. Annoyance is not a pathological entity," it concludes.
"Some people don't like wind turbines. The vast majority of people do," said Gerretsen. "To me there is a lot of NIMBYism involved. Some like the look of them, some don't."
Looking back from her mirror view on Wolfe Island, Gail Kenney would say that her MPP's view of the islanders' situation is typical of most mainlanders.
"Kingstonians like looking at turbines. They say, 'Aren't we wonderful. We're doing something for the environment -- with little or no consideration for the people of Wolfe Island and what it's done to the largest of the Thousand Islands," said Kenney, who speaks for the residents' group.
"I'm glad everybody over there feels so good."
Kenney is unimpressed with the report, which she described as being written by a "panel picked and paid for by the wind energy industry."
One of the sponsors of the report, a member of the wind organization, is Canadian Hydro Developers, the company that built the Wolfe Island turbines, as well as TransAlta, the western oil and gas company that completed its purchase of Canadian Hydro in November.
Kenney said the report is inconclusive and little more than a reworking of past studies, done mainly in Europe.
"It's not a health study. What it's doing is reviewing the literature. It says over and over again what's needed is further studies," she said.
"If we need more studies, why don't we do it? We need to have health studies and we don't need to start three years from now because they'll have to go on for four or five years. Some children in this community are exposed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At school, too. They are exposed to it."
Exactly to what people are exposed is not always clear.
The wind association report dispels most concerns about hearing loss because turbines, at a distance of about 300 to 700 metres, function at about 40 to 50 decibels -the level of noise measured in the living room of a typical home or office.
Gerretsen said 40 decibels is the maximum level allowed for turbines under new legislation and that all turbines must be at least 550 metres away from their nearest neighbours.
"I can tell you from being on Wolfe Island listening to the wind turbines, anyone near a 400-series highway is subject to far more noise than a wind turbine. That's my assessment," said Gerretsen.
The report does, however, point to something called the "nocebo effect," defined as "a worsening of mental or physical health, based on fear or belief in adverse effects."
It then goes on to discuss "wind turbine syndrome," something apparently fuelled by news media coverage.
"The large volume of media coverage devoted to alleged adverse health effects of wind turbines understandably creates an anticipatory fear in some that they will experience adverse effects from wind turbines," the report states.
"Every person is suggestible to some degree. The resulting stress, fear, and hypervigilance may exacerbate or even create problems which would not otherwise exist. In this way, anti-wind farm activists may be creating with their publicity some of the problems that they describe."
Kenney said that her personal experience of the turbines is not imagined.
"There's thumping and swishing and all the sounds that go with it," she said.
"It's a disturbance of the atmosphere. It's not just noise in the background. It's a feeling you get. It's a disturbance. This is not just noise. I don't care what the report says. I've experienced that."
Gerretsen said that as part of its Green Energy Act, his government is supporting the appointment of a university chair to "do research into any concerns" about wind turbines and their effect on human health.
He said the proposal has been sent to the Ontario Council of Universities to select the university that will lead the research.
Kenney said that was the kind of guarantee her organization demanded from Gerretsen several years ago. "Instead we ended up with the wind farm without studies," she said.
Last spring, several researchers at Queen's University began a baseline study to determine the health of Wolfe Islanders before the wind farm began operating.
Health surveys done with people living near wind turbines in Europe and the U.S. have registered a number of medical disorders including sleeplessness, depression, anxiety and tinitis.
When called for comment about the wind association report last week, one of the researchers, Neal Michelutti, said he hadn't read it.
Michelutti explained that the group's work is a "secondary project" that doesn't always take precedent.
Gerretsen said allegations that the association report is biased because it was industry supported aren't fair.
"From the names of the people I saw it certainly made the report credible to me," he said.
In fact, said Gerretsen, eastern Ontario, subject to the strong westerly winds off the Great Lakes, can expect to see more wind turbines on land and in the water.
"Of course he's happy with the report," said Kenney. "He's had little interest in protecting Wolfe Island from industrial development and we're in his jurisdiction.
"We're living in the middle of a land wind factory. It's not a farm. It's industrialization. It's the industrialization of rural Ontario to help the urban centres offset their pollution."