The Ministry of the Environment’s role is to protect human health and the natural environment.
It was a line MPP John Wilkinson found himself repeating countless times last week when he sat down with county councillors to explain – and defend – the province’s push for, and regulations surrounding, new renewable energy projects, particularly industrial wind turbines.
Wilkinson, the Minister of the Environment, was joined at the meeting by Doris Dumais, director of environmental assessments and approval, who provided insight into the Ministry’s approval process for renewable energy projects. The meeting was attended by members of lower-tier municipalities in Perth County as well as representatives from Oxford, Huron and Grey counties and Owen Sound.
Wilkinson said when the province passed its Green Energy Act in 2009 it put in place a stringent set of rules that a potential developer must comply with for a project to be approved.
Without doubt the most contentious requirements for wind turbines have been the minimum setback of 550 metres from any residence, school or commercial building, and the 40 decibel noise restriction.
Many people argue the province’s regulations are inadequate and don’t do enough to protect people who live near a turbine from suffering adverse health effects, including symptoms like fatigue, headaches, nausea and sleep deprivation that are frequently attributed to the low-frequency noise emitted by turbines.
Challenged by some at the meeting – including members of the grassroots group West & East Perth Against Turbines – to produce some of the documentation used in determining the rules for noise and setbacks, Wilkinson said the reports are available on the Ministry’s website.
He noted when setting the regulations, the Ministry reviewed many scientific peer-reviewed journals and followed the recommendation from Dr. Arlene King, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, who conducted her own study into wind turbines.
“Modern turbines have been around for 40 years and have been the subject of extensive scientific inquiry,” he later told members of the media. “We looked at all that, and Dr. King verified that there is not proven scientific link between wind turbines and human health” as long as the 550 metre setback and 40 decibel limit are obeyed.
Dumais acknowledged that measuring low-frequency noise, and thereby gaining a better understanding of its impacts, has its challenges. It’s something not everyone can hear, and therefore not easy to monitor, she noted.
“How do we measure noise at wind farms in such a way that we can actually determine what’s coming from a turbine and what’s background noise?” she said. “That’s the work that is evolving in the Ministry right now.”
Questioned about the conclusion from Grey-Bruce medical officer of health, Dr. Hazel Lynn, that as many as 15 per cent of people living in close proximity to a turbine suffer health problems, Wilkinson countered that Dr. Lynn agreed with Dr. King’s ruling that the majority of people living near a turbine have no concerns.
He did suggest, however, additional research into this area would be beneficial.
“I have always said we are open to any scientific study that is presented to us, whether it is locally or from around the world, when it comes to environmental law and science.”
For anyone who thinks they might be suffering ill health due to a turbine, Wilkinson suggested they contact the Ministry’s 1-800 telephone number. He said the Ministry investigates all complaints and will impose any changes that are necessary to bring the project in compliance with the Ministry’s safety standards.
“We have already taken some action on some wind turbines where we were convinced they were exceeding the noise limit,” he noted.
In her presentation, Dumais said that before an application is submitted to the Ministry the developer must complete a number or reports, including specific details of the project, its construction and any impacts on the environment, and how they will comply with the Ministry’s regulations. The developer must also produce a plan for decommission if the project is abandoned for whatever reason.
“By law, under the renewable energy approval, (the developer) will be required to decommission that facility,” said Dumais, noting the developer is responsible for the work, even if they file for bankruptcy.
The key piece to this initial stage of the process is consultation with the municipality and public (the Ministry mandates at least two public meetings and, depending on the level of public concern, might determine further consultation is required). Dumais said a project will not move forward unless the Ministry is satisfied the developer has addressed all of the concerns, which must be submitted to the Ministry.
“It’s very important for us to hear from you,” she added.
The initial application and subsequent reports are then reviewed by various government ministries using their teams of engineers, scientist and other experts. All reports are then made available for public review.
Dumais noted a project will not receive final approved unless it meets all of the process requirements. She noted that of the 29 applications the Ministry has received as of January, 17 have been returned as incomplete.
Once approved, projects can be appealed by a member of the public to the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal.
Responding to a question from Coun. Rhonda Ehgoetz about the impact the construction of these projects will have on local services and infrastructure, Dumais noted the municipality has the opportunity to submit a form with its concerns, and the developer must show how they have been addressed.
Coun. Meredith Schneider asked about the loss of farmland. Wilkinson noted that no landowner is being forced to participate in these projects, and that they are free to decide for themselves.
“It’s the private sector that’s putting these up,” he added.
Asked whether he would live near a turbine, Wilkinson said he would, as long as the project meets all of the Ministry’s regulations.
He added that the province is committed to replacing dirty energy, and that there are “some great opportunities in renewable energy so we can clean up the air we breathe.”
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