Two brothers-in-law, a country road in northwest Missouri, a fistfight …
Surely it’s happened before, but probably never over wind energy.
Last year, 400-foot-tall wind turbines were erected near King City, some less than 2,000 feet from Charlie Porter’s house on his small acreage.
Soon the sounds from the blades swooshing through the air and other noise were driving Porter and his family crazy, he said.
“The sound gets in your head like a saw and you can’t get rid of it,” Porter said. “Some people compare it to a train that never arrived.”
Porter’s complaints upset his brother-in-law, a Gentry County commissioner who helped bring the wind farm and new economy to the area, as well as others. In February, it spilled over into a fistfight between them, then a lawsuit.
At the heart of the dispute: Just how healthy is the noise from wind turbines?
Many place great hope in wind farms to produce cleaner energy that will replace some of the need for coal-fired power plants.
The 27 turbines in the Bluegrass Ridge wind farm were dedicated in September near King City.
But complaints about illnesses caused by the sounds that emanate from turbines are just beginning to be studied.
One researcher calls it “wind turbine syndrome,” a collection of symptoms that include headaches, anxiety attacks and high blood pressure. Doctors in some other countries have done research on people who live near turbines and say the sounds they emit make them sick.
Several researchers suggest that turbines should be set back from homes, schools and hospitals by more than a mile.
Kenneth Smith, a Kansas City area audiologist, says such low-frequency sounds can cause health disorders – but cautions that much more study needs to be done on turbines.
“This has to make you nervous as a scientist,” said Smith, a founder of Hearing Associates and a fellow with the American Academy of Audiology. “It’s risky to draw conclusions.”
The wind industry says the evidence so far is only anecdotal.
One thing is certain. For a lot of King City residents and nearby farmers, the Bluegrass Ridge wind farm meant dollars for the schools and the town. The turbines have even brought tourists just to gawk at them.
Porter said he is not opposed to wind turbines, but he began complaining to the county and others when he saw how close some of them would be to his property, where he raises registered quarter horses. His wife works as a nurse in St. Joseph. Around his home are rolling hills and a couple of ponds – and now the looming turbines.
Once the blades started turning, he had another set of complaints. Porter said his family, including his 11-year-old daughter, has suffered from headaches and sleeplessness.
“It’s like somebody swinging a rope over your head,” he said. “Some days, it’s worse than other days. The only way you can get away from it is to drive into town.”
In addition, powerful strobe lights come on at dawn and dusk, lighting up the inside of his home.
Porter said he has had the property up for sale for a year, but can’t find a buyer.
According to a lawsuit filed in federal court by Porter, it was during the Christmas holidays that family emotions over the towers began splitting at the seams.
After receiving a threat from Commissioner Gary Carlson, Porter said, he drove out to meet Carlson and on the way called the sheriff to report a fight was about to happen.
About a half mile from his home, Porter met Carlson, Carlson’s wife and a brother. Porter said he was thrown to the ground, hit and kicked.
Since then, the Gentry County Commission has hired an attorney.
Carlson said that the attorney had advised him not to talk about the fight or the lawsuit, but that there was more to the story.
“If you are focused that the wind turbines are going to be a problem in your life, then they are going to be a problem in your life,” he said.
The fight has left residents buzzing. Some say greed is motivating Porter to complain.
“It’s been said if he’d gotten the tower (on his property), he wouldn’t be throwing such a fit,” said David Waltemath, a banker in town. “Everybody else has been very positive.”
His family owns three farms that nearly adjoin Porter’s 20 acres, and 12 of the 27 towers are on those farms, Waltemath said.
The farmers are paid at least $3,000 per turbine annually.
The turbines can be noisy, Waltemath acknowledged.
“But when you are indoors, you don’t really hear them,” he said.
Tom Carnahan, president of Wind Capital Group and the developer, said one turbine was moved farther from Porter’s house at his request at a cost of $50,000. But as the construction continued, Porter brought up additional concerns.
“The claims he makes are largely things raised on the East Coast and what you see on the fanatically anti-wind Web sites,” said Carnahan, son of the late Mel Carnahan, who was once Missouri’s governor.
“He doesn’t reflect the large, large majority in the community, and I’m sorry he is not seeing the benefits that they are.”
Porter acknowledged that he could be irritating.
“I’m not afraid to speak my mind,” Porter said. “I’m kind of a ‘tell it like it is and let the chips fall where they may’ kind of guy.”
One official said Porter has a right to protect his property.
Rep. Jim Guest, a King City Republican, said he has talked with people on both sides of the issue, including Porter.
“He is sort of caught in a windmill farm,” Guest said. “I’m not so sure he is the only one who objects, but he is the most vocal.”
The towers are nearly 260 feet tall, and each of the three blades is 140 feet. Some of the turbines are less than a third of a mile from Porter’s home, and when they turn, they emit a low, humming vibration.
Nina Pierpont, a New York pediatrician who has taught at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, has found a consistent cluster of symptoms associated with people living under wind turbines, including sleep problems, headaches that increase in severity, dizziness, nausea, exhaustion, anger and irritability.
She calls it “wind turbine syndrome” and says it appears to be an emerging problem.
“A setback of 1.5 miles from homes, schools, hospitals and similar institutes will probably be adequate … to protect people from the adverse health effects of industrial wind turbines,” she recommended to the New York legislature.
Pierpont is close to completing a clinical research study, which could be the first on the subject.
Doctors in other countries, including Canada, England, France, Australia and New Zealand, have written papers about similar illnesses in people who live near wind farms.
Amanda Harry, a medical doctor in England, said in a research paper that she first realized there was a problem with low-frequency noise from turbines from a couple living near a wind farm in Cornwall. The distance from their home to the nearest turbine was about 1,300 feet.
The couple said they suffered from headaches, anxiety and lack of sleep. Sometimes the problem was so disturbing that they spent nights at a bed-and-breakfast.
Harry’s research documented 39 people living from 1,000 feet to about 1.5 miles from turbines. She found that the sounds fluctuated, depending on the wind strength and direction. But she wrote that she thought the cases she found were only “the tip of the iceberg.”
At the New University of Lisbon in Portugal, professor Mariana Alves-Pereira has found that sounds occurring at or below the frequency band 500 Hz could cause “vibro-acoustic” disease. Last year her research team obtained detailed acoustical measurements of a home near four turbines, and Pereira concluded that the sounds were high enough to be associated with vibro-acoustic disease.
Because of Pereira’s research, the National Academy of Medicine in Paris has raised concerns over “chronic sound trauma” from wind turbines that could “constitute a permanent risk for the people exposed to them.”
The academy has recommended halting wind farm construction closer than about one mile from residences while waiting for “precise studies of the risks connected with these installations.”
A spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association said she was aware of the sound issue.
“But we don’t have any information that this is a big issue,” said Christine Real de Azua.
“There are a few people (complaining). I wouldn’t say they are widespread. Some people are more sensitive to sounds.”
“Does noise bother people differently? Absolutely,” said Smith, the area audiologist. “It can have a very debilitating effect.”
But, he said, before anyone can conclude that the wind turbines are harmful, a major study must be done.
By Karen Dillon
12 March 2008
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