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Oregon studies wind health

The Oregon Public Health Division plans to issue a report in March addressing the concerns raised by citizens, government leaders and conservation groups in last fall’s Health Impact Assessment of wind farms.

The agency’s Wind Energy HIA Steering Committee will meet Thursday in The Dalles to determine which areas of the assessment need to be addressed. The meeting takes place from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, 5000 Discovery Drive.

The committee is made up of representatives from communities near wind energy facilities, local and state government agencies and decision-makers, and renewable energy developers. Wasco County Commissioner Scott Hege is a member of the committee that will help the state evaluate the potential positive or negative health affects of living in or near a wind energy project.

He said the committee members are also being trained by OPHD officials about how to conduct an assessment at the local level when wind developments are proposed.

“This is only our second meeting and we’re not moving along very quickly because we are being trained about how to do the scoping process,” said Hege.

Christine Stone, public information officer for Public Health, said people were recently asked in an online survey what they liked abut their community and what challenges and health issues had arisen from the siting of wind turbines. She said public comments were also gathered by the agency’s Office of Environmental Public Health at three “listening sessions” in Eastern Oregon last fall.

At these sessions, many citizens expressed fears that wind turbines degraded scenic views, wildlife habitat, property values and health. People living near a wind farm complained of panic attacks, lost sleep and added stress caused by the low frequency noise and vibrations from turbines.

“All of the information that has been gathered to date is going to be included in the report and we’re hoping that the document will be used by policy makers when making decisions on wind energy developments,” said Stone.

She said OPHD will also factor into its report the best available science to evaluate potential health risks. When the document is released, she said there will a public comment period to gather input on the compiled data.

Health officials intend for the report to help guide future policy decisions because of the growth in the wind industry during the past few years. There are currently 1,200 wind turbines now sited on a dozen wind farms across the central and eastern sectors of Oregon. These turbines reportedly produce enough energy to power 500,000 homes but have drawn mixed reviews from the people who live nearby.

The state’s final report, which is expected to be released in June, will be given to the Department of Energy, the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council and county commissioners for consideration.

Paul Woodin, executive director of the Community Renewable Energy Association, had requested that the Oregon health study be conducted using peer reviewed health and noise studies conducted over the 20-year period that wind turbines have been tested. He cautioned against using information that is not backed up by scientific research to reach conclusions.

Don Coats, a fourth generation wheat grower in Sherman County is on the CREA board and concurs with Woodin. He said there are 500 turbines in Sherman County and there is no conclusive evidence that a health effect is associated with exposure to them.

“I am offended that a state agency is providing a platform for those who oppose wind development to express unfounded health concerns,” wrote Coats in an email to OPHD officials.

“It would be more appropriate for the state to be involved in education and assuring the people of the state that there is no hazard, not providing them a way to legitimize an issue that doesn’t exist.”

Coats and Woodin believe the benefits to health provided by wind power as a replacement for carbon-based energy should also factor into the state’s report.

Hege said there is a diverse group of people serving on the committee and they all seem interested in finding a balanced approach to address any health issues that arise from wind farms. He said that is a difficult task since some of the concerns raised at the listening sessions and in the survey, such as sleeplessness caused by turbine noise and lights, could have another cause.