Victoria’s largest wind farm operation is attracting attention as the residents of Waubra, north-west of Ballarat, claim the turbines are causing health problems.
JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA, PRESENTER: It’s the biggest wind farm operating in Victoria and it’s putting the tiny town of Waubra on the map in ways the locals never predicted. It’s been dubbed the ‘Waubra Disease’, the health effects of living surrounded by wind turbines and it’s now becoming known around the world. As the State Government approves more wind farms, there are growing demands for serious investigation and for standards to be reviewed. Cheryl Hall reports.
DONALD THOMAS, WAUBRA FARMER: I thought it was probably the greatest thing to ever happen to the area. Visited wind farm up at Ararat and was quite impressed and came home thinking well, yeah, it’s a good thing. It’s not until the windmills started turning that we started to experience a few problems.
CHERYL HALL, REPORTER: And what sort of problems have you had?
DONALD THOMAS: We’ve had troubles, ear pressure, headaches, rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure.
CHERYL HALL: 20 families living around Waubra’s wind turbines have reported similar symptoms, but not everyone can talk about it. Those with turbines on their properties have signed agreements not to speak publicly.
DONALD THOMAS: In the yard here you can feel the ones on the hill there. They get into sync and every minute or two you’ll get this – there may be three or four big whooshes that you can actually feel.
CHERYL HALL: The most high-profile case of so-called “Waubra Disease” was Trish Godfrey, who spoke to Stateline last year.
TRISH GODFREY, WAUBRA RESIDENT (Sept. 2009): Basically, the best way I can describe it is that you feel that you’ve got motion sickness, but it’s not just for a little while, it’s all the time in varying degrees. It feels like my head is in a vice. I can’t remember the last night that I had a full night’s sleep. Usually we wake up at least five or six times during the night.
CHERYL HALL: Last week she won her battle when the wind farm company Acciona bought her property, but it came at a price.
Trish and Victor Godfrey have signed a confidentiality agreement and can’t speak publicly, but the company Acciona has issued a statement denying they suffered health effects from the turbines.
BRETT THOMAS, ACCIONA: No, that certainly wasn’t the issue that they contacted us about. As I said, their concern when they contacted us was about the visual impacts.
CATHY RUSSELL, WESTERN PLAINS LANDSCAPE GUARDIANS: Absolutely ridiculous, because we all know, and as well as the media knows, as well as the greater community who reads the papers knows, Trish was very much suffering. And there’s no question of a doubt it would open the floodgates effectively with regards to liability.
CHERYL HALL: Just down the road from Donald Thomas’s house this property is deserted. The Deans haven’t lived here for 10 months.
NOEL DEAN, WAUBRA FARMER: I won’t go out there while the turbines are there. I can’t afford to. I just get too ill.
CHERYL HALL: Noel Dean has moved to Ballarat. His son works on the farm but won’t live there.
NOEL DEAN: It’s cost us approximately $400,000, of buying this shed, relocating and expenses occurred in the monitoring and investigation of the problem, which the wind farm won’t do. I’ve asked compliance from the State Government for at least six months and they won’t give any confirmation that they’ve complied with their duty.
BRETT THOMAS: We’re carrying out all of the compliance obligations that we are required to carry out at that wind farm.
CHERYL HALL: The responsibility of enforcing the permit conditions has been transferred from the Planning Minister Justin Madden to the local council. But the Pyrenees Shire Council has been unable to do its job. It says it has neither the technical skills or the financial resources to enforce the conditions. The council has received many complaints and wants the State Government to investigate them.
DAVID CLARK, PYRENEES SHIRE MAYOR: I honestly don’t know, and again all the official evidence says that no, there isn’t an impact. My personal view is very simple. My personal view is I’ve known these people all my life and a lot of them I’ve gone to school with and I trust ’em with my life. And they’re saying to me they’ve got an issue and to me that issue needs to be investigated.
CHERYL HALL: The Planning Minister Justin Madden declined a request for an interview, but he issued a statement saying complaints regarding noise levels at the Waubra wind farm have been investigated and no breach of the conditions has been found. The Health Department says it has reviewed current research and believes there is no direct evidence that wind farms cause health problems. The Clean Energy Council agrees.
MATTHEW WARREN, CLEAN ENERGY COUNCIL: The issue of infrasound comes up in these debate, but after 20 years of wind farm development round the world and 100,000 turbines erected and studied around the world, there is no medical evidence of infrasound causing illness.
CHERYL HALL: Noel Dean has commissioned an independent report on noise levels at his property.
NOEL DEAN: I’m waiting for an independent, peer-reviewed report which at the moment indicates that there’s non-compliance at our property several times over 10 days. There is pulsing of low frequency, highly suspected of causing the illnesses we are getting.
CHERYL HALL: The report will be presented to a court case in New Zealand next week to demonstrate widespread complaints about health effects. It will include information on Waubra as well as complaints from 750 people who live near a wind farm in Makara in New Zealand.
CATHY RUSSELL: I’ve got information effectively from Makara Windfarm in New Zealand, the affidavits from the people who live near that particular wind farm, and similarly, questionnaires of a similar nature with regard to health from Waubra that back up – the same people in the same situations.
CHERYL HALL: Donald Thomas fears his problems are about to get worse. There are plans to make the Waubra wind farm even bigger, with more turbines to the north.
DONALD THOMAS: There’s no way known we can allow Waubra north to go ahead, having lived next to the biggest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere.
CHERYL HALL: But the Waubra wind farm will be dwarfed by the Stockyard Hill proposal, west of Ballarat, of more than 200 turbines. Like Waubra, the communities of Beaufort and Skipton are divided over the wind farm. 300 public submissions have been received about the plan.
CASSIE FRANZOSE, WESTERN PLAINS LANDSCAPE GUARDIANS: The lack of information, the refusal to have a public meeting. There is no chance that this will not be approved. I mean, it is an absolute given. This process is – absolutely favours the deployment and widespread deployment of inappropriate wind farms across Victoria.
CHERYL HALL: Victoria currently has 10 operating wind farms, but another 27 are under development. One of those at Bald Hills in Gippsland was this week granted approval by Planning Minister Justin Madden to increase the height of its turbines by 20 per cent to 135 metres.
CATHY RUSSELL: It’s like a new frontier, effectively, because turbines, when the noise standards were set for example, were based on turbines that were around 36 metres high and now they’re 136 metres high and reaching into parts of the atmosphere never chartered before.
CHERYL HALL: But Environment Minister Peter Garrett laid the responsibility firmly with the State Government.
PETER GARRETT, FEDERAL ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: Wind farms, there are a broader range of issues, sitting issues, amenity issues, noise issues and the like, and I certainly think that it’s important that they are taken into account by local authorities and state governments in any of the states of the Commonwealth when they’re actually approving wind farms.
CHERYL HALL: Cathy Russell and Noel Dean met with Peter Garrett last night. They asked him to take their health issues seriously and fund an independent investigation.
CATHY RUSSELL: We’ve told them repeatedly, and so ultimately, he’s ignoring that advice at his peril, as he has done with insulation and solar. It’s just a minefield and it’s a time bomb waiting to happen, especially with the deployment of so many of these things throughout western Victoria.