CHATHAM-KENT, Ont. – In a case that’s put Ontario’s Green Energy Act on trial drawing expert witnesses from around the world, a prominent Canadian physician testified Wednesday that construction of new wind turbines should be put on hold until appropriate medical studies are done to ensure the safety of nearby residents.
“The province ought not to proceed with the development of industrial wind turbines any further,” said Dr. Robert McMurtry, a past dean of the medical school at the University of Western Ontario and a former assistant deputy minister of health for the federal government.
“There is a lot of suffering,” McMurtry said. “We need to understand why.”
McMurtry was a witness for Chatham-Kent residents trying to overturn ministry of environment approval for Suncor’s proposed Kent Breeze wind farm.
Using audio and video teleconferencing, expert witnesses from England, New Zealand and the U.S. have already weighed in on the complex science of industrial noise and how humans perceive and react to it.
Suncor and environment ministry lawyers have a long list of experts of their own to call in the weeks ahead. Final arguments to the two-member Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal panel aren’t expected to be made until April.
Considered the key witness for sceptics of the safety of turbines as currently regulated in Ontario, McMurtry spoke of his experiences talking to more than 40 people who have lived close to the 120-metre high towers and whirling blades. They complain of prolonged sleep deprivation, stress, headaches, extreme fatigue, and high blood pressure, he said.
Leaving their homes to stay with relatives or in motels provides relief from the symptoms, McMurtry said. “The only cure is to move.”
McMurtry was critical of both Ontario’s noise standard for wind turbines and the 550 metre setback from turbine locations to homes in the regulations to the 2009 Green Energy Act. “I do not have confidence in those guidelines.”
The setback is a key issue. If setbacks of 1,500 metres or more – which some experts call for – had been established, development of wind turbines in heavily populated Essex County and many other southern Ontario communities would have been impossible.
It’s not just a question of how loud wind turbines may be, it’s the repetitive, pulsating nature of the “whoosh, whoosh” sound that appears to annoy some people, McMurtry said.
An analogy used by other experts in the hearing is the drip of a leaky faucet, which while not loud, can be annoyingly disruptive to sleep.
Low frequency noise and inaudible, infrasound may also contribute to the distress of those living close to turbines, said McMurtry. He conceded a lack of research proving a definitive cause and effect, but at the same time, said no research proving the safety of turbines at typical setbacks exists either.
“More likely than not, people living near industrial wind turbines are suffering adverse health affects,” McMurtry said. Governments should act in precautionary way to protect the health of residents until peer-reviewed research provides greater certainty about the kinds of regulations needed for wind development, he said.
McMurtry got interested in wind turbines after buying a cottage in Prince Edward County in 2007 with enough land to potentially put up one of his own. But after researching the issue further, he became alarmed at the weak scientific basis for claims of the safety of wind turbines.
He tried unsuccessfully to raise his concerns with several Liberal cabinet ministers, getting no response.
Prince Edward County has also been a popular choice of location for several large wind projects although none have yet been built. McMurtry has been prominent in a local citizens’ group in his community questioning wind turbine development.
A past special advisor to a Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care, he has immersed himself in recent years on the scientific research around the world on the health issues raised by wind turbines.
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