Barbara Ashbee-Lormand traveled from central Ontario to central Vermont in late October to a discussion of an industrial wind turbine development proposed for the town of Ira, organized by Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
She’s a rare figure in the debate over the effects big wind towers have on people. She’s one of only two homeowners that a major wind company, Canadian Hydro Developers, has conceded it bought out because of their complaints that the huge gadgets proved to be impossible to live with.
Ms. Ashbee-Lormand has an important story to tell, but she didn’t tell it at that October meeting in West Rutland. Nor did she tell it during an interview in her real estate office in Orangeville, a town of about 15,000 that sits 50 miles north and a little west of Toronto.
That was part of the deal, when Canadian Hydro bought her home.
“I cannot talk about my personal experience,” she said at the outset of a brief interview. “If you want to call it a gag order, so be it.”
Ms. Ashbee-Lormand clearly believes that wind towers pose a threat to human health, but she can’t say why. It might have been that frustration that briefly reduced the crisply tailored businesswoman to tears during the meeting in her office.
But she could refer this reporter to a colleague, retired pharmacist Carmen Krogh, who is under no such constraint. Ms. Krogh was a featured speaker at the West Rutland meeting. She says that Ms. Ashbee-Lormand and her husband found the wind towers so intolerable that they moved out of their house and slept in a tent in the backyard.
They lived in Amaranth, a rural township north of Orangeville that is host to 22 industrial wind turbines. After Canadian Hydro bought them out, they moved to the nearby township of Mono. Moving out of a house into a tent makes little sense, unless the effects of low-frequency sound from the turbines are taken into account.
“Low-frequency noise can be more disturbing inside a house,” Ms. Krogh said in a recent interview. “The house can act as a receptor.” In the tent, Ms. Krogh suggested, the couple coped with the noise of the turbines, “but the other component was reduced.”
Ms. Krogh says that Ms. Ashbee-Lormand is just one of more than a hundred Ontario residents who, in response to her questionnaire, have reported that nearby wind turbines do them harm.
That’s enough, she argues, to justify a thorough-going, well funded study of the effects wind turbines have on some of their human neighbors.
“My personal position is that we really need to pause until we do some very good studies,” she said. She compares such a study to the search for side effects that is undertaken before a potent new drug is released for general use.
In the field of wind energy, she notes, “it has been a very difficult situation, because a lot of investment has already taken place.”
Ontario alone, she estimates, has between 500 and 600 working turbines.
Absent the sort of study, the wind power industry is free to make statements like this one from the Canadian Wind Energy Association, to the Orangeville Banner: “We say it’s quite conclusively demonstrated in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that there’s no causal linkage that’s been found between sounds from wind turbines and human health.”
The industry’s stand on the matter, and its apparent determination to tie financial settlements to gag orders, isolates people who do suffer side effects.
In Amaranth, Ms. Ashbee-Lormand recalls, “We were experiencing problems, and being told we were the only people in the wind farm who were having problems. They really do try and keep it quiet.” Then Ms. Ashbee-Lormand saw Helen Fraser on television, talking about the problems that led her and her husband, Bruce, to sell their home.
The Frasers lived in the neighboring township of Melancthon, which hosts the majority of the 133 towers in Canadian Hydro’s “Eco-Power Center.” They are the other family whose home, the utility acknowledged utility to Banner reporter Richard Vivian, it purchased as a result of the residents’ health complaints.
The four other homes it bought, Canadian Hydro told the Banner, were needed for storage and to house construction workers.
Ms. Fraser disputes that vigorously. All the purchases, she insists, were due to residents’ complaints of health problems. One of them was a dairy farmer, she says, who complained that his cows stopped calving, and their milk production suffered accordingly. “He moved to Saskatchewan,” Ms. Fraser said.
Unlike Ms. Ashbee-Lormand, Ms. Fraser said she is barred only from discussing the terms of the purchase agreement, and can talk freely about what led to it.
The couple broke ground for their new home on County Road 17 on their second wedding anniversary in 1975. Built to their specifications, the five-bedroom home went up on a one-acre lot on the back corner of a farm that was then owned by Bruce’s parents. The stone facing on the front of the house came from the nearby farm of Helen’s parents.
They raised their four children in the house, planted scores of trees, grew bushels of potatoes in their vegetable garden.
When construction started on the wind turbines in 2005 the Frasers were interested and, Ms. Fraser insists, sympathetic witnesses.
Mr. Fraser, a retired crops expert for the province of Ontario, clocked a big gravel truck rumbling by the house every 30 seconds, hauling materials for the network of roads that crisscross the flat farmland around their former house.
He marveled at the scale of the project, the deep holes, 60 feet across, for turbine foundations that each absorbed truckloads of concrete and a tractor trailer load of rebar. The towers rise 256 feet, he said, and the turbine blades extend their height to 386 feet.
The closest tower is 1,410 feet from the house – “Much too close,” Mr. Fraser said on a recent visit to the site.
But before the turbines started turning in March 2006, Ms. Fraser insists, “I was still for them. I’m for green. We compost and recycle. I’m totally for green.”
Once the big blades began to turn, Ms. Fraser said, “I started to get headaches, then body aches, and a feeling like something was crawling out of my ear.”
Her problems varied with the direction of the wind, Ms. Fraser recalled. “If the blades were facing the house, I wrote the day off. I couldn’t concentrate. My heart would beat to the pulse of the turbines. We’d have to keep the windows closed.”
When the couple took a vacation to a beach on Lake Huron, she said, “all my symptoms, within 24 hours, cleared up.” When they came home, she said, the symptoms returned.
“If the blades were facing the northeast I wouldn’t sleep at all,” Ms. Fraser said. The family dog couldn’t sleep either, she said, “and nine times out of ten she’d pee on the floor.”
That August a 25-day trip to Canada’s east coast provided quick relief. “I never had aches, no ringing in my ears, nothing crawling out of them,” Ms. Fraser said. “Bruce’s blood sugar went back to normal.” Mr. Fraser is a diabetic, and at home his blood sugar levels had been all over the map.
“Back home we come and the symptoms started all over again,” Ms. Fraser said. “I started realizing this has to be the turbines. I started looking on the Net and found that this is a common problem. I said, ‘Okay, I’m not nuts.’”
Things got even worse with the arrival of winter, Ms. Fraser said. Coming from a lower angle, the sun shone through the wind turbines and cast their flickering shadows into the house.
The strobe effect gave her a pounding headache, Ms. Fraser said. “One day after 45 minutes I went to the basement – the dog beat me there. I thought the top was coming off my head. I was holding the sides of my head, my eyes were running, I was sick to my stomach.”
Beyond the physical symptoms, Ms. Fraser recalls a feeling of uneasiness. “You can’t get that anxious feeling out of yourself; feeling like you’re in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It upsets your equilibrium.”
In 2007, on their thirty-fourth wedding anniversary, the Frasers moved into a house in the nearby town of Shelburne.
The company had made them an offer and, after talking to the grown children, all living in Toronto, the couple decided to take it.
“If we decided to keep the house, we wouldn’t be able to sell it,” Ms. Fraser said. “Basically I call it shut up money.”
Though she is free to discuss her experience with the turbines, and frequently does so, Ms. Fraser said she did agree not to testify in person at hearings on wind power that the Ontario Municipal Board was holding at the time.
“It was heartbreaking when we sold that house,” Ms. Fraser said. “Just heartbreaking.”
There were two years of extensive renovation before the Frasers stopped calling the Shelburne residence a house. With 25 friends and family sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner this fall, Ms. Fraser said, “we officially called it a home. It was a hard two years.”
Meanwhile an employee of Canadian Hydro lives in the couple’s old house.
It’s listed for sale in the Orangeville Banner, though the wind turbine that sits so prominently behind the house is somehow missing from the small photo in the newspaper ad. Though she can’t discuss the details of the original sale, Ms. Fraser noted that the asking price has, over time, drifted down from $298,000 to its present level of $284,900.
“If I had advice for any municipality,” Ms. Fraser said, “it would be ‘Please, please, please do the research on the health effects before you consider destroying people’s lives.’”