Significant Finding on Wind Energy and Health in Ontario

The Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT) has recently released its long awaited decision on a wind turbine controversy which has generated a lot of media in Ontario in recent years. Its findings are quite significant, because the Parties involved had called experts from all over the world to speak to the issue of whether this Project will seriously harm humans living nearby

The ERT is one of the five Tribunals within the Environment and Land Tribunals Ontario ‘cluster’. The ERT primary role is adjudicating applications and appeals under various environmental and planning statutes. You can find the determination here.

Essentially, the review says that “the Environmental Review Tribunal finds that the Appellants have failed to show that Suncor’s Kent Breeze Project, as approved, will cause serious harm to human health.  However, the evidence shows that there are some risks and uncertainties associated with wind turbines that merit further research”. 

The article below is a recent piece from The Huffington Post on the findings, the author is Dianne Saxe.

I have also added some text from another article, which goes into the health concern issues a little more deeply, at the end of the first article.

Wind Energy and Health: Is There a Problem?

The Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal has finally released its long awaited decision on the wind turbine controversy that has generated so much concern in Ontario.

Last year, Suncor obtained approval from the Ministry of the Environment to build a large wind farm known as Kent Breeze Wind Farms in the Township of Camden. The project will include eight wind turbines, each rated at 2.5 MW. Chatham-Kent Wind Action Inc. and Katie Brenda Erickson, who opposed the project, appealed to the Environmental Review Tribunal. In essence, they argued that Ministry standards for wind turbines are not sufficiently strict, and that allowing the project to be built would have a serious adverse effect on human health.

The ERT decided that the project can go ahead. There is strong evidence, they found, that wind turbines have no direct effect on human health, other than the very small risk of a catastrophic accident, like a turbine falling on someone. The real issue is “indirect” effects, especially, the stress and annoyance that some people feel about these turbines.

Under the Environmental Protection Act, renewable energy projects can go ahead unless they will cause serious harm to human health. Those opposed to the turbines could not prove that they will. As the Environment Review Tribunal put it:

The heart of the Appellants’ case is that there will be serious harm to human health at the nonparticipating receptor sites [the homes of the objecting neighbours]. The main ingredient of their case (ignoring for the moment issues such as turbine failure, shadow flicker, etc.) is that sound emissions (including audible sound, low frequency sound and infrasound) cause serious harm at certain levels and that the Project will emit sound at high enough levels that non-participating receptors will experience serious harm. However, the Appellants’ position has not been proven…

In this case, the Tribunal has heard evidence of several different kinds of risks to human health. Based on the evidence, they can be put into several general categories. First, there are those, such as direct hearing loss, that the evidence in this Hearing shows will not be caused at all because the sound levels are too low to cause physical damage to the human ear. Second, there are those, such as physical injury or death from tower collapse, turbine failure or other accidents, which are caused at a very low rate across all turbine facilities. The chances of them occurring here at this site are extremely low. Third, there are those, such as chronic stress, sleep deprivation, etc., that are worthy of further study. However, the evidence at this Hearing has not shown, at this stage of research, that they will be caused here…

This is consistent with the May 2010 report of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer: we have yet to find scientific evidence that wind turbines directly cause health effects, although it may be annoying. Dr. David Colby, the Chatham-Kent Medical Officer of Health, has been vilified for saying the same thing.

The Tribunal noted that we will know more about the indirect, annoyance issue as research progresses:

    The research in this area is at quite an early stage and that our collective understanding of the impacts of wind turbines on human health will likely progress as further research and analysis is undertaken… This case has successfully shown that the debate should not be simplified to one about whether wind turbines can cause harm to humans. The evidence presented to the Tribunal demonstrates that they can, if facilities are placed too close to residents. The debate has now evolved to one of degree. The question that should be asked is: What protections, such as permissible noise levels or setback distances, are appropriate to protect human health?

Much of this research will likely come from other countries, like Denmark, that already generate 20 per cent of their electricity from wind, and plan to increase that rapidly to 40 per cent.

I find it odd that we, in Ontario, focus so much public buzz on fear of wind turbines. Most of our energy sources are far more dangerous to human health and the environment. Coal emits soot, smog, and the powerful neurotoxin, mercury, as well as vast amounts of greenhouse gases, which are already causing climate change.

Thousands already die early from the air pollution coal creates. Oil also spills and entangles us in foreign wars. Nuclear power exposes us to radiation, and to nuclear waste that will be hazardous for many years (Fukushima. Three Mile Island. Chernobyl…). Fracking shale to get natural gas can contaminate groundwater and has been blamed for earthquakes. Dams mobilize mercury and can wipe out fisheries and other wildlife. There is no such thing as electricity that causes no harm.

This case has served as a reminder that all types of energy projects (including renewable or “green” projects) can generate significant concerns and conflict. The precautionary principle’s focus on “preventing” the causes of environmental degradation calls upon all of us to take significant steps to reduce energy demands and encourage conservation. In this way, the precautionary principle serves as a modern reminder of the old adage that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

A wind turbine will produce 80 to 120 times more energy than it consumes during manufacturing. Wind turbines, roads and support structures take up only five per cent of land in a wind farm; the remaining land area can be used for agricultural activities.

Regulators impose mandatory setback distances to attenuate noise; larger turbines must be set back at least 550 metres from homes, schools, and places of worship, to keep noise below 40 decibels (about the noise in a quiet office). Applicants must provide notice in writing to all land owners within 120 metres of the project location. For larger projects, there is extensive public consultation with the community, first nations and local municipalities.

Why, then, are so many people so worried about electricity from this clean, naturally occurring, relatively quiet, local source? Is it just because it’s new, and visible? Some people are more sensitive than average to sound and vibration, just as some others find odours particularly annoying, and asthmatics are particularly sensitive to smog.

But another big part of the answer may be: who owns the turbines? Community wind power is much better accepted than megacorp wind farms. In Germany, for example, wind provides nearly eight per cent of German’s net electricity consumption. Local landowners or residents groups built almost a third of the turbines, and around 200,000 own the shares. Local ownership of wind projects has led to increased economic benefits to the region, and much better public acceptance of such projects. (see the Pembina Institute Harvesting Clean Energy on Ontario Farms report, which highlights initiatives taken by German farmers in wind and other climate-friendly power sources. )

Why, then, is Ontario doing so little to support community owned power?

 

Additional resources from Jackie Campbell.

Follow Dianne Saxe on Twitter: www.twitter.com/envirolaw1

The health debate

There is also some commentary on the health issues covered in the ERT case given below. This text comes from an article called Appeal of Wind Farm Rejected by Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal, from Globe-Net, and the full article can be read here.

The Conclusions of the ERT

In reaching its decision the ERT was explicit in finding that the Appellants had not met the legal test set out in the EPA and as a result the appeals were dismissed. This impact of the decision was to confirm the decision of the Director (a MOE official), effectively approving the REA for the project.

While acknowledging “legitimate concerns and uncertainties about the effects of wind turbines on human health”, the Tribunal found that given the evidence presented it could not conclude that the project as currently contemplated “will cause serious harm to human health”.

Having made this important finding the Tribunal then went on to “note” that the research regarding the impact of wind turbines on human health is at “quite an early stage” and that knowledge and understanding of the impacts of wind turbines on human health will likely progress in the future as further research and analysis is undertaken.

While this statement may seem innocuous, it was followed in the decision by further statements regarding potential impacts of wind turbines on human health. These further comments suggest that potential impacts on human health, while not serious enough to meet the statutory test on appeal, are of a nature to require further study and to attract continued concern of stakeholders. Specifically, the ERT states in its conclusions that:

“This case has successfully shown that the debate should not be simplified to one about whether wind turbines can cause harm to humans. The evidence presented to the Tribunal demonstrates that they can, if facilities are placed too close to residents. The debate has now evolved to one of degree.

The question that should be asked is: What protections, such as permissible noise levels or setback distances, are appropriate to protect human health? In Ontario, recent regulations have provided guidance in that regard.

In cases such as this, where the Appellants have not sought to demonstrate any type of unique harm associated with the design of this Project and have not attempted to demonstrate the sensitivity of a particular receptor, it was essentially up to the Appellants to prove that the Ontario standards are wrong in the context of the specific Project under appeal (leaving aside the related question about possible non-compliance with the standards).

Just because the Appellants have not succeeded in their appeals, that is no excuse to close the book on further research. On the contrary, further research should help resolve some of the significant questions that the Appellants have raised.”

While the conclusions of the ERT above relate to the state of the current science of the potential impacts of wind turbines and are not incendiary, it is possible that opponents of wind generation may interpret or portray these comments as suggesting that wind turbines remain somewhat risky notwithstanding the evidence to the contrary.

3 thoughts on “Significant Finding on Wind Energy and Health in Ontario

  1. Good article.

    Small note, however: Huffington Post is under cyber-picket, last I heard. Don’t visit the site.

    see http://www.nwu.org/huffpo

    In brief, former owner Arianna Huffington sold the online magazine for millions, but is not paying a cent to any of the many writers who have provided content for her (for free) for years.They are mounting a class action against her backed by the writers’ union.

    Unrelated to renewables, but it strikes me as a fair cause!

  2. Certainly the writers who provided free content to the HuffPo have a legitimate case for their cause, unlike the guardians.

    The article highlights very well just how benign wind energy is when compare to fossil fuel and nuclear powered sources.

    It’s a pity the wind industry and representatives of the guardians can’t get together to select a group of people to thoroughly investigate the alleged health effects. I suspect the reason this hasn’t happened up to date is because the guardians secretly know they are fighting a lost cause and their motives are less than honest, much like the propaganda they drop on unsuspecting communities.

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