Canadian Consulting Engineer

Wind Worries

Ian Hanna became more concerned about plans for a local wind farm after every public meeting. It started when he saw how close the project was to his home, as he first began to hear about research into potential health threats.

May 1, 2011   By John G. Smith

Ian Hanna became more concerned about plans for a local wind farm after every public meeting. It started when he saw how close the project was to his home, as he first began to hear about research into potential health threats.

Then a doctor told him about the bats. This research showed that low-frequency sounds from a wind farm may actually be shaking the winged creatures to death. “That,” Hanna says, “was the moment I became alarmed.”

Hanna was soon one of the leading challengers in the fight against new rules for Ontario wind farms, even after plans for turbines near his Prince Edward County home were scuttled (the Department of National Defence is protecting the air space around nearby Mountain View Airport). An Ontario Divisional Court challenge in his name argued that the Environment Minister failed to follow a “precautionary science-based approach” when establishing minimum 550-metre setbacks for the installations – a buffer designed to limit noise exposure to less than 40 decibels.

This March, the court ruled that the Minister did follow the process mandated by the Environmental Bill of Rights, leaving challenges against individual projects to new environmental review tribunals. The first was being held this spring in Chatham-Kent, where Katie Erickson and Chatham-Kent Wind Action are fighting Suncor’s bid to build the Kent Breeze Wind Farm.

Eric Gillespie, the Toronto lawyer retained by Hanna and Erickson, says the latest evidence includes much more medical research than he brought to Divisional Court. By the time closing arguments are made in late May, the tribunal will have heard 25 witnesses from as far afield as the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia. A final ruling on this project will be made about six weeks after that.

A report by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Arlene King, rejected many of the health concerns. “While some people living near wind turbines report symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, and sleep disturbance, the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse sound effects,” she wrote. “The sound level from wind turbines at common residential setbacks is not sufficient to cause hearing impairment or other direct health effects, although some people may find it annoying.”

“The balance of expert scientific and medical information to date clearly indicates there is no direct link between wind turbines and effects on human health,” Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) president Robert Hornung added in a statement after the Divisional Court ruling.

Those opposing wind turbines obviously have a different opinion. Wind Concerns Ontario, for example, claims more than 100 people are affected by the province’s existing industrial wind turbines. Others cite Portuguese research concluding that long-term exposure to the vibration caused by low-frequency sound and infrasound may lead to vibro-acoustic disease, with symptoms ranging from depression to neurovascular disorders and strokes.

Then there are the physical threats from above. A Dutch handbook says as many as one in 2,400 blades might fail a year.

Turbines have been known to fail because of factors as diverse as mechanical problems or lightning strikes, but the situations are rare, stresses Tom Levy, CanWEA’s manager of technical and utility affairs.

Any flying metal also appears to fall within the minimum setbacks when a failure does occur. While blades have been thrown as far as 150 metres, fragments have travelled no more than 500 metres.

Ice on the blades will travel less than that. A study near Kincardine, Ontario, for example, never reported ice more than 100 metres from a turbine’s base. The threat can also be controlled by tracking related vibrations and shutting down everything automatically or by remote control.

Justin Rangooni, CanWEA’s Ontario policy manager, suggests that wind farm opponents have been changing the nature of their challenges. First it was about aesthetics. Now it is a matter of health. In Ontario they seem to be aligning views with opposition parties as October elections approach, Rangooni adds.

The province already has more than a dozen wind farms capable of generating more than 40 megawatts each, and those numbers are expected to double in the next two to four years under the wind-friendly Green Energy Act, which has streamlined the approval process.

But Hanna won’t need to worry about the noise of wind turbines. Instead, he can listen to the sound of Hercules aircraft droning overhead, as military personnel are trained at Mountain View Airport. “We have no problem with that,” he says. “We’re dealing with something that doesn’t hurt us. I’m not prepared to grant you that with an industrial turbine.” cce

 John G. Smith owns WordSmith Media in Ajax, Ont.


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