Speaker's Corner: Wind power issues more about politics than health

Some issues have a habit of polarizing people. Abortion comes to mind. With large swaths of the public either opposed or in favour, the mere mention of the topic can cause blood to boil.

Wind power may not carry the moral heft of abortion, but the issue has the tendency to divide communities and create warring factions while leaving the uninformed public in the middle scratching its head. Despite all of the rhetoric, the evidence shows the turbine issue is not a yes or no question like abortion but one of degree. How far should wind turbines be from residential dwellings? If the answer to that question is a few hundred extra metres from the existing standard, it’s not likely to satisfy the most vocal wind critics.

In a July 2011 decision in Erickson v. Director, Ministry of the Environment, Ontario’s Environmental Review Tribunal found there wasn’t enough evidence to show that the proposed project posed a “serious threat to human health.” Th at is the test set out in the Environmental Protection Act that opponents must meet in order to overturn an environmental approval for a renewable energy project. Nonetheless, the tribunal did say there was some evidence that wind turbines can cause harm if facilities are too close to residents.

Of particular note, considering the level of anger the issue has created, is the tribunal’s finding that the evidentiary gap among the parties isn’t nearly as wide as it would appear. The question, said the tribunal, is one of degree and what protections in terms of noise and setbacks are necessary to protect human health.

The tribunal outlined a sensible approach, but how does this differ from the record in Ontario on how the government developed the existing setback limits in the first place? In an earlier decision in 2011 in Hanna v. Ontario (Attorney General), the Ontario Divisional Court found that the government, in setting the existing 550-metre setback limit, had received 1,300 written submissions from scientists, engineers, and academics and had also considered more than 100 studies as well as publicly available scientific literature.

Studies show that five to 10 per cent of people living near wind turbines report being annoyed by the sound. Indeed, the mere prospect of seeing a wind turbine outside your window can prompt all kinds of frenzy with everything from allegations of vertigo and sleep disorders to loss of hearing due to the noise. However, there’s no scientific evidence that the noise created by wind turbines actually causes health problems. Also, some studies show that the reported levels of annoyance related as much to a person’s attitude toward the visual impact of wind turbines as to the actual sound level emitted.

The problem, then, is that the people who don’t like wind turbines are more likely to report being annoyed by the sound. In addition, these studies suffer from selection bias as people who already think wind turbines have affected them select themselves to participate in the case studies. In any case, as the court in Hanna pointed out, the provincial government knew all of this information when it determined the existing setback levels.

This past summer, Ontario’s Superior Court ordered Dr. Arlene King, chief medical officer of health for Ontario, to testify on her 2010 report in which she said: “The scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects. 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.” Dr. King was subsequently asked to give evidence in a case concerning a farming couple who have been fighting a proposed project to install 150 wind turbines near Goderich, Ont. One of those turbines would sit within 650 metres of their farm.

In July 2012, Health Canada announced a twoyear study to “explore the relationship between wind turbine noise and eff ects reported by, and objectively measured in, people living near wind power developments.” The study will focus on the health of 2,000 residents who live near wind farms across the country. Wind opponents will eagerly await Health Canada’s results, but the studies will likely only confirm what we already know: some people living close to wind turbines don’t like them and may even experience indirect health effects. But those conclusions are unlikely to satisfy the most ardent wind critics whose problems with wind seem to go beyond measurable health effects.

Interestingly, Health Canada announced its study just as the Conservative government’s budget implementation act, which weakened environmental oversight, became law. So as the federal government squeezes the environmental reviews of the direct health consequences of oil pipelines, it announces yet another study to look at the possible indirect consequences of wind turbines. Unfortunately, it seems that when it comes to wind, the real issue isn’t health — it’s politics.

John De Vellis a lawyer at Shibley Righton LLP in Toronto. He has represented customer and industry groups at hearings before the Ontario Energy Board and also assists renewable-energy developers with commercial, land acquisition, and regulatory issues pertaining to the Ontario Power Authority’s feed-in tariff program.

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