When Dalton McGuinty embraced wind power four years ago, it seemed he couldn’t lose.
Politically, his support for this infinitely renewable form of energy put the Ontario premier firmly on the side of the environmental angels.
Even more important, McGuinty’s Liberals pitched their commitment to wind as part of a comprehensive, green industrial strategy.
The government would not merely use wind turbines to generate electricity. It would also subsidize firms to build the giant machines for export.
In effect, windmills would be to the new Ontario what autos were to the old – the province’s economic driver.
Critics of the premier’s ambitious schemes were dismissed as cranks and nutters infected with a not-in-my-backyard syndrome.
To ensure that these self-seekers and know-nothings didn’t interfere with the government’s bold plans, Queen’s Park stripped municipal councils of their power to regulate wind turbines.
On paper, the plan seemed a sure winner.
But that was before Dr. Bob McMurtry.
McMurtry is neither a crank nor a nutter. An orthopedic surgeon and former dean of medicine at London’s University of Western Ontario, he is part of the country’s medical and political establishment.
He’s acted as a health advisor to the former federal Liberal government. In the early 2000s, he was a key advisor to Roy Romanow’s royal commission into Medicare.
McMurtry’s brother, Roy – a Red Tory and former attorney general – was Ontario’s chief justice for 11 years.
Bob McMurtry began as a strong advocate of wind power, keen to have a turbine built on the 16-hectare Eastern Ontario farm he bought four years ago for retirement.
As he explained in a telephone interview this week, he hoped to generate his own power and sell the rest to Ontario’s electricity network.
But being a scientific sort of chap, McMurtry began by researching the issue.
What he discovered alarmed him. In particular, he ran into evidence – re-enforced by personal encounters later – that low-frequency humming associated with wind turbines may lead to chronic sleeplessness, stress and even hypertension causing heart disease for anyone living within two kilometres of a machine.
What alarmed him more was that the provincial government did not even monitor this low-frequency noise. As well, under Ontario rules, giant windmills need be no more than 550 metres from any residence.
So in 2009, he made the not terribly radical suggestion that Queen’s Park conduct a proper, arms-length study on the health effects of industrial wind turbines before authorizing any more.
Failing that, he said, it should insist that new turbines be set at least two kilometres away from any dwelling.
The wind industry was outraged. Fearful of being enmeshed in red tape, wind power firms argued strongly against such a study. Their case was bolstered last May after provincial medical officer of health Dr. Arlene King issued a report saying no scientific evidence exists to show that wind turbines harm human health.
McMurtry countered that this is because no one has ever conducted a proper study – which is why he wants one.
Those interested in the dueling scientific arguments can find King’s report on the Ontario government website and McMurtry’s response at www.windvigilance.com.
But regardless of who wins the substantive debate, McGuinty’s windmill dreams have already become political nightmares.
Dozens of rural municipal councils, angered by the province’s decision to take away their regulatory authority, have passed motions of complaint.
Even the Ontario Federation of Agriculture – which represents farmers who rent their land to wind firms – has called for a moratorium on new turbines until a serious health study can be done.
The opposition Conservatives smell blood.
Trotting around through all of this is the unassuming Bob McMurtry.
He heads up a new international body of doctors and scientists investigating wind power called the Society for Wind Vigilance. Throughout small-town Ontario, he is in great demand as a speaker.
“There’s a real level of anger there,” he told me. “Rural Ontario is on fire.”
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday and Saturday.