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Six-month adjournment order for health effects study  

Author:  | Australia, Health, Regulations

Cherry Tree Wind Farm, applicant; Trawool Valley–Whiteheads Creek Landscape Guardians and others, respondents:

The application for review is adjourned to a date to be fixed not later than 4 October 2013.

The parties are given leave to adduce further evidence which correlates the incidence of health impacts alleged to be caused by wind turbines with the distance the person impacted lives from the wind turbine. …

A major focus of the respondents’ cases was on the alleged effect of wind turbines upon the health and wellbeing of people residing close to wind farms.

The Guidelines state (at p. 30):

Responsible authorities must assess the impact of a wind energy facility on landscape values, flora and fauna, human wellbeing and amenity in a systematic manner.

There is evidence before the Tribunal that a number of people living close to wind farms suffer deleterious health effects. The evidence is both direct and anecdotal. There is a uniformity of description of these effects across a number of wind farms, both in south east Australia and North America. Residents complain of suffering sleep disturbance, feelings of anxiety upon awakening, headaches, pressure at the base of the neck and in the head and ears, nausea and loss of balance.

In some cases the impacts have been of such gravity that residents have been forced to abandon their homes.

On the basis of this evidence it is clear that some residents who live in close proximity to a wind farm experience the symptoms described, and that the experience is not simply imagined.

What is less clear is whether there is a causal link between sound pressure emissions from a wind farm and the health effects complained of.

Those opposing the wind farm say that the association is of itself evidence of a causal link particularly given that the symptoms disappear when residents move away from the wind farm for a period, and reappear when they return. On the other hand there is a body of acoustic and medical evidence that there is no physiological basis for a causal connection, and that the explanation must be psychological, a phenomenon described as the “nocebo effect”.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has been described as the leading public health authority in Australia. In July 2010 it published Wind Turbines and Health – A Rapid Review of the Evidence. That publication was tendered in evidence (Exhibit A40) The publication concludes:

The review of the available evidence, including journal articles, surveys, literature reviews and government reports, supports the statement that: There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms and that any potential impact on humans can be minimised by following existing planning guidelines.

The publication has been the subject of some criticism, and as its name suggests was a “rapid review”. Indeed, in its public statement reference no. NEW0048 the Council said, somewhat more circumspectly, that “there is currently insufficient published scientific evidence to positively link wind turbines with adverse health effects” and that “relevant authorities should take a precautionary approach”. The Tribunal has been informed that the Council is presently revisiting the subject and will shortly publish a revised or updated review.

In June 2010 there was Senate Inquiry into the Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms. The Inquiry relevantly concluded that:

Recommendation 1
2.44 The Committee considers that the noise standards adopted by the states and territories for the planning and operation of rural wind farms should include appropriate measures to calculate the impact of low frequency noise and vibrations indoors at impacted dwellings.

Recommendation 2
2.58 The Committee recommends that the responsible authorities should ensure that complaints are dealt with expeditiously and that the complaints processes should involve an independent arbitrator. State and local government agencies responsible for ensuring compliance with planning permissions should be adequately resourced for this activity.

Recommendation 3
2.69 The Committee recommends that further consideration be given to the development of policy on separation criteria between residences and wind farm facilities.

Recommendation 4
2.101 The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government initiate as a matter of priority thorough, adequately resourced epidemiological and laboratory studies of the possible effects of wind farms on human health. This research must engage across industry and community, and include an advisory process representing the range of interests and concerns.

Recommendation 5
2.102 The Committee recommends that the NHMRC review of research should continue, with regular publication.

Recommendation 6
2.103 The Committee recommends that the National Acoustics Laboratories conduct a study and assessment of noise impacts of wind farms, including the impacts of infrasound.

Recommendation 7
3.99 The Committee recommends that the draft National Wind Farm Development Guidelines be redrafted to include discussion of any adverse health effects and comments made by NHMRC regarding the revision of its 2010 public statement.

The respondents have been unable to refer the Tribunal to any judgment or decision of an environmental court or tribunal which has found that there is a causal link between emissions from a wind farm and adverse health effects on nearby residents. The most that has been said is that further research may be warranted.

The NZ Standard states at section 5.5.2:

Claims have been made that low frequency sound and vibration from wind turbines have caused illness and other physiological effects among a very few people worldwide living near wind farms. The paucity of evidence does not justify at this stage any attempt to set a precautionary limit more stringent than those recommended in 5.2 and 5.3.

This “paucity of evidence” underlies the one thing about which there is agreement among the experts, both in the evidence given to the Tribunal and in the scientific literature, which is that there is a need for further research and studies.

  • Dr Laurie said in her statement:

    I resolved to do what I could to ensure such research [about the adverse health effects of chronic exposure to this sound and vibration energy from wind turbines] was urgently conducted, in order to ensure that future planning decisions for the siting of wind developments were better informed by science.

  • Mr Stephen Cooper, an acoustic expert who gave evidence on behalf of the Landscape Guardians, said that further investigation and research into the question was needed.
  • Dr Black, an expert in public health with much experience in the investigation of noise from infrastructure projects, who gave evidence on behalf of the permit applicant, said that further studies would be worthwhile and that the current literature about wind farms around the world was “pretty flaky”. He would support a study to demonstrate that compliance with the NZ Standard is sufficient to protect against sleep disturbance.

The recommendation of the Senate Inquiry set out above basically adds to this chorus rather than providing any concrete answers.

The Tribunal considers that the issue of health and wellbeing raises two distinct questions. The first question is whether there is a causal link between sound pressure emissions from wind turbines and adverse health effects on nearby residents. The link may be physiological or psychological. However, given that the respondents expressly disavow that the impact is psychological and that the so-called “nocebo effect” lacks any empirical basis, the inquiry in this case must be as to whether there is a physiological cause. In this regard Mr Cooper hypothesised that wind turbines may emit a particular low frequency “signature” that gives rise to the problem.

One difficulty facing the satisfactory resolution of this question is that there appears to be no overlap of expertise between the acousticians and the health experts. The acousticians can measure the noise but are unable to say what effect it has on human health. The health experts can identify the health issues but are unable to connect those issues with particular levels of noise or sound pressure. It is this that creates the need for interdisciplinary studies.

If the first question produces an affirmative answer, the second and equally important question is what is the incidence of health problems amongst the nearby residential population, and how does that incidence vary or attenuate with distance from the wind turbines. Obviously the problem must be given greater weight by decision makers if 50 per cent of the population surrounding a wind farm is affected rather than 5 per cent.

Both the proponent and the opponents of the wind farm have referred to extensive scientific literature, but none of the authors of that literature with the exception of Dr Black and Mr Cooper gave evidence to the Tribunal. In consequence none of the scientific literature has been able to be tested. In particular there has been no correlation of any probative value between the health impacts attributed to wind farm emissions and the distance from the wind turbines at which the impact is experienced. Many of the impacted persons referred to in the literature have resided closer to turbines than the 2 kilometres prescribed by clause 52.32 of the planning scheme.

In summary the Tribunal has been made acutely conscious of the questions but finds itself in a less than satisfactory evidentiary vacuum regarding the answers.

The Tribunal was informed in the course of the hearing that the Environment Protection Authority of South Australia is about to embark upon a detailed study of the alleged effects of the wind turbines at the Waterloo wind farm in South Australia on surrounding residents. We are told that this study will be carried out in April and May of this year.

It is probable that the study will address the relevant questions. The Tribunal considers that given the uniformity of expert opinion as to the desirability of further studies of this nature, and having regard to the imminence of the EPA study, the prudent course is to defer a final decision in the matter in anticipation that the results of the study may assist the Tribunal to answer the questions posed above. The Tribunal also considers that this course is consistent with the precautionary principle as explained by the Supreme Court in Rozen v Macedon Ranges Shire [2010] VSC 583 and recommended by the NHMRC in its publication NEW 0048.

The Tribunal therefore proposes to adjourn the matter for a period not exceeding six months to enable the EPA study to be carried out and a report prepared. The Tribunal will write to the EPA of South Australia in terms which have been shown to and agreed by the parties advising the EPA of its interest in the matter and asking that it be kept informed. The Tribunal will send a copy of this interim decision to the EPA.

The Tribunal will also write to the NMHRC advising of its interest in any revision or update of its position in relation to the health impacts of wind turbines, and will asked to be kept informed of progress.

Download original document: “Cherry Tree Pty Ltd v Mitchell SC VCAT Order 4th April 2013

This article is the work of the author(s) indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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