Caution to the Wind
Updated Sat. Dec. 27 2008 6:55 PM ET
Ontario Energy Minister George Smitherman is all smiles at the opening ceremony of the Melancthon EcoPower Centre, near Orangeville. With133 gleaming white turbines, standing 80 meters tall and poised to generate enough energy for 52,000 homes, this is the largest wind farm in Canada -- and a symbol of Ontario's commitment to green energy.
"When by 2014, our collective actions allow us to close the Nanticoke coal fired generating station," Smitherman told to the gathered crowd, "we will have made the biggest single contribution to climate change anywhere in all of North America."
No doubt about it, green is good. So why is it that across the country, more and more people are seeing red over wind energy? Some say that in the rush to develop wind power, current government regulations aren't doing enough to protect human health, or the environment.
Helen Fraser wasn't at the opening of the Melancthon EcoPower Centre. But she's all-too familiar with the turbines. According to Fraser, she and her husband lived just over 400 meters from one of the turbines erected in phase one of the project. At first she had no problem with the fact that a wind farm was coming to her rural area.
"I thought this was absolutely amazing. [I was] all for green" said Fraser. But soon after the 45 meter blades -- longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 737 -- started spinning, she said she knew something was wrong.
"It was like a whoosh sound. It would just go whoosh-whoosh, like a steady beat with it. And there would be times my heart would actually beat to the pulse of the turbine," she recalled.
Even though the turbines' distance from the Fraser's home satisfied the Ontario government's noise guidelines, the sound and strobing effect when the sun was shining through the spinning blades made them too close for comfort - at least for the Frasers.
"I had terrible headaches, body aches. I couldn't sleep at night," said Fraser. "My husband's blood sugar, because he has diabetes, was all over the map." When the couple went away on vacation, they say the problems stopped.
Fraser and her family eventually sold their property to Canadian Hydro Developers, the company behind the wind farm, and their former home sits in the shadow of a giant, spinning wind turbine.
Assessing the health risk
Andrea Hutchinson walks her daughter in front of their house, which stands near the Melancthon wind farm.
To some, the experiences of Helen Fraser might sound far-fetched. But not to Dr. Robert McMurtry, a former assistant deputy minister at Health Canada. When McMurtry decided to retire, he chose Prince Edward County, an area in Eastern Ontario that juts out into Lake Ontario. It makes the region well-suited for wind farms and several are planned. Concerned about possible effects, McMurtry, a medical doctor who is not an expert in the field of wind turbines, decided to analyze the scientific literature.
"I am really concerned because there have been too many reports in too many places around the world about ill affects, adverse affects on health," he told W-FIVE. "The low frequency noise has a particular problem. And a number of people have reported ill effects including headaches and dizziness and ringing in their ears or sometimes worse."
The turbines apparently don't affect everyone equally. Andrea Hutchinson and her family live near the Melancthon wind farm - the same one that caused Helen Fraser such distress. But Hutchinson doesn't mind them at all.
Standing on her property, and pointing to the spinning turbine nearby, she told W-FIVE the sound was far less than she had originally feared.
"I can hear them if I'm not moving around and there is no traffic," she said. "It's not offensive at all. They're not that loud."
The wind industry backs up its claim that there are no adverse health affects from wind turbines with several studies and points to the fact that there are some 10,000 turbines across North America, with relatively few complaints.
But opposition to wind farms is growing across Canada. Critics want tougher rules governing how close turbines may be built to people's homes. Some provinces do set noise limits. And in Ontario, that usually means municipalities require turbines be 400 meters away. That's three times closer than the buffer zone being recommended by health experts at France's National Academy of Medicine.
To bring awareness to the issue, several local groups have joined forces to make some noise about wind energy. They're called Wind Concerns Ontario. W-FIVE attended the inaugural meeting in Innisfil, Ont. this past fall.
"I think the government really needs to step up to the plate and make sure they do their due diligence and make sure they do their history checks on where they are putting these wind turbines because it's about location, location, location," said one member.
"The government has made rural Ontario residents expendable in the name of green energy," complained another. "It's as simple as that. And they are going to ram it down our throats."
Canadian Hydro Developers
The controversy over wind power has been a surprise to John Keating, the CEO of Canadian Hydro Developers. His company has built the Melancthon EcoPower Centre.
"Some people don't like change. Some people embrace change, and this type of change is the type of change that we should all be embracing, because that is our future," said Keating.
He also doesn't understand how there can be any adverse health effects from wind turbines.
So how do wind developers like Canadian Hydro Developers find a place to put their wind turbines? The first step is to recruit local landowners to lease a part of their land, a lucrative arrangement that can bring in between $9,000 to $14,000 a year, for each turbine. Next, they begin an environmental screening process where consultants are hired to address any potential environmental concerns. Another key process is making a deal with the local municipality to determine what the wind power company will contribute to the local government, which also makes the zoning changes necessary for construction.
On Wolfe Island, home to 1,200 residents at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, just offshore from Kingston, community concerns went beyond human health. They extended to how the municipal approvals were granted and the potential impact to an environmentally sensitive area, because Wolfe Island is designated as an Important Bird Area and is an important stopover for migrating birds.
At the time the Township of Frontenac Islands council voted on changes to the zoning by-law to allow the wind farm development to go forward, the environmental screening report still hadn't been completed. Two township councilors from Wolfe Island had optioned their own land to Canadian Hydro Developers, leaving the vote to the mayor and the two remaining councillors from neighboring Howe Island. The vote passed, with the township poised to earn about $645,000 every year for the next 20 years, under the agreement.
The mayor of the township of Frontenac Islands, Jim Vanden Hoek, refused to give W-FIVE an interview, but did send an e-mail to the program:
"Wolfe Islanders are excited about the economic opportunity that this project brings to the community and proud to be contributing to the solution to what is likely the most serious problem facing the next generation," wrote Mayor Vanden Hoek.
John Keating, of Canadian Hydro Developers, also defended his company's actions.
"What we do when we find a resource that is attractive, we approach the local municipal council, we look for champions within that council and just see what support there is for a project," said Keating. "Over the course of our history on Wolfe Island, we've seen two municipal elections and the councilors generally ran on, one of the platforms was in support of this renewable energy project."
That wasn't good enough to mollify Wolfe Island resident Sarah McDermott, who challenged the project before the Ontario Municipal Board.
"I live in the village right across from the restaurant and all of the people with optioned land go to the restaurant in the morning for coffees," said McDermott. "It's made me paranoid in that I don't even want to go outside anymore."
Her partner, musician Chris Brown, feels the same way. "You know they've created this image of green energy and being against the windmills, as they say, is about on par with 'don't you support our troops.'"
McDermott's OMB challenge, and her request that the Ontario Environment Ministry escalate the Wolfe Island environmental screening to a more stringent environmental assessment failed. Despite some local opposition and initial concerns from Ducks Unlimited and Environment Canada the project was given a go-ahead because the OMB was swayed, in part, by Canadian Hydro Developers' commitment to locate their turbines away from wetlands and to monitor the project's impact on birds for at least three years.
Ontario Environment Minister John Gerretsen, whose riding includes Wolfe Island, concedes that so far, not one of the 19 requests from citizens to escalate environmental reviews for wind turbines has been granted. "I think that we have enough information available with respect to the major issues that are involved," Gerretsen told W-FIVE in an interview.
Bill Evans, a bird expert who has studied migratory patterns on Wolfe Island, argues that more environmental reviews are required. He claims that waterfowl, songbirds and, in winter, snowy owls and bald eagles are all at risk from the newly constructed turbines on Wolfe Island.
"What I'm concerned about is the precedent for this project going in this close to Lake Ontario, this close to these kinds of populations of waterfowl, and eagles," said Evans. "If a developer can come in and build here, why not anywhere along the lakeshore?"
Consider the analogy of cigarette smoking. When I started smoking 50 years ago, smoking was not considered much of a health issue. Most of my friends thought it was cool to smoke. Then, the U.S. surgeon general released a report warning that smoking cigarettes can be hazardous to your health. Most smokers, myself included, ignored the warning. We were enjoying our habit.
Research reports continued to be published that proclaimed the dangers of smoking. I finally quit smoking when a relative died of lung cancer. In spite of all of the warnings, the laws prohibiting smoking in public places, my brother continued to smoke. He recently died of lung cancer.
Would Mr. Jolliff call all of those warnings about cigarette smoking exaggeration, fear-mongering, misinformation, rhetoric, etc.? As we learn more and more about wind turbines, we are discovering warning signs. For example, there is the issue of noise pollution. Dr. Nina Pierpont has recently written a book about the impacts of noise on humans.
Does that mean everyone will be impacted the same way? Of course not. Just as not all cigarette smokers will develop lung cancer. This issue and others must be understood and mitigated for the benefit of all citizens of this community before the turbines are erected.
My biggest concern is the economics of this form of energy. Our politicians have stated that the state of New York should be producing 20 percent of our electricity by renewable energy sources. In order to accomplish this goal, it will be necessary to build thousands of turbines, all of which will be operating at 30 percent efficiency. Seventy percent of the time, they will be sitting idle. Is that rhetoric or is that fact, Mr. Jolliff?
All of these turbines will be subsidized by us taxpayers. These subsidies and profits will be flowing offshore to foreign companies. How is this any different than money flowing to petroleum-producing countries?
Of course, we are told of the necessity for all of these turbines by the same government he was so critical of in his letter. To quote him, "The picture is not unlike the Vietnam disaster and the illicit Iraq invasion." It is the taxpayers' responsibility to become educated on all aspects of this issue.