HEPPNER, Ore. – An Oregon county is telling the owner of a big wind farm to quiet down so neighbors can sleep at night. The operator of the Willow Creek Energy Center southwest of Boardman objects to the unusual noise enforcement. Another wind farm developer active in the area has reportedly paid neighbors “hush money” to head off similar trouble. Correspondent Tom Banse has been traveling through eastern Oregon this week for a two part series on how wind power is seen by those closest to it. Here’s his report from Morrow County.
General contractor Dan Williams lives in a hexagonal house designed to let in panoramic views from all directions. Two years ago, this northern Oregon big sky scenery changed dramatically.
Williams: “White sticks and propellers everywhere!”
A wind power developer put up dozens of towering wind turbines on the other side of the Willow Creek valley. The blades spin about three-quarters of a mile away. Retired firefighter Dennis Wade lives even closer to the windmills. Wade drops by the Williams’ place for a chat.
Dennis Wade: “It sounds like a train or a jet that never arrives, that just keeps going in one place.”
Dan Williams: “The sleeplessness…that’s the major thing for us.”
Dennis Wade: “I have woken up at night and it’s like somebody beating on your chest from the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.”
Dan Williams: “For me, it makes me feel uneasy.”
Dennis Wade: “I have migraines. This has kicked the migraines up.”
Tom Banse: Do you get used to it, like if you live on the ocean you get used to the sound of the waves?
Dan Williams: “I haven’t, no. This sound is different. I think it affects my body.”
Dennis Wade: “The feelings that Dan was talking about, once you leave and go away for a day or so, they recede and you feel back to your normal self.”
Sound: (wind turbines return)
Dan Williams acknowledges that the sounds and vibrations bother some people, while others in the area go unaffected. Last year, a small group complained to the county. Many meetings and noise surveys ensued. Finally this week, the Morrow County Planning Commission rendered a decision. It found the wind farm in violation of an obscure Oregon industrial noise limit.
Sound: planning commission votes 5-0 in favor
The county gave the wind farm operator six months to come into compliance.
Neither side of the noise debate is pleased. The wind farm neighbors don’t want to wait six months or more for peace and quiet. The energy company says it intends to keep generating wind power while it pursues its legal options. Alissa Krinsky is a spokesperson for Invenergy based in Chicago.
Alissa Krinsky: “Although we appreciate the time and deliberations of the Morrow County Planning Commission, we are disappointed in its decision and believe there has been a fundamental misreading of the standard under which Oregon law regulates noise emissions.”
At the county seat, Invenergy passed out a fact sheet. It cites a U.S. Department of Energy finding that a “modern wind farm at a distance of 750-1000 feet is no more noisy than a kitchen refrigerator.”
An attorney for the neighbors has suggested the operator idle some turbines at night under certain wind conditions. The company has been silent about what options exist to make a wind farm quieter. Early on, Dennis Wade says Invenergy offered to pay neighbors for a “noise easement” or waiver.
Dennis Wade: “Quiet money, I guess you’d call it.”
Tom: “And you said what?”
Dennis Wade: “No, thank you.”
A different wind energy developer with a project under construction nearby is trying to head off similar problems. That company reportedly is writing $5000 checks to neighbors who agree not to complain about turbine noise. Caithness Energy declined to say how many households took them up on the deal. Caithness’ Shepherd Flats project will be the nation’s biggest wind farm when it is completed in about two years.
Morrow County Planning Commission chair David Sykes says this whole episode provides a hard lesson for his panel and others.
David Sykes: “We’ve talked about how we’re going to approach the next one to avoid this. We don’t want to be in this position. We want it to run smoothly and have the noise issue not be an issue.”
Next time, Sykes says he’ll ask for noise modeling in advance of construction. Other Northwest counties are debating turbine buffers or setbacks.
One other sign of gusty weather ahead for the wind industry: The Oregon Public Health Division has scheduled three “listening sessions” in northeastern Oregon next week (Nov. 3-4). The agency says it wants to look into whether the health concerns about living next to a wind farm have any scientific validity.
Oregon Public Health Division – Health impacts of wind energy assessment:
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