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Tribunal hears health concerns over wind energy

Opponents of wind energy in Ontario took another step this week, as a provincial tribunal heard arguments over the impact of wind turbines on human health.

Ontario’s Environmental Review Tribunal was in Chatham, Ont., to hear a challenge over a licence given to energy giant Suncor to build an eight-turbine wind power project in Chatham-Kent.

Those opposed to the development argue that noise and light disruptions from the giant propeller-like towers are affecting the health of people who live near them. They want the government to conduct more studies to determine the linkage.

“We know adverse health effects are occurring. We’re not sure of the precise mechanism,” argues Robert McMurtry, former dean of the University of Western Ontario’s Medical School and an expert witness for Chatham-Kent Wind Action, the group spearheading opposition to Suncor’s plan.

The provincial government doesn’t see the need for more study.

“We have 40 years worth of science that deals with people living near turbines. That science tells us that we need to have the most stringent setbacks in North America,” counters John Wilkinson, Ontario’s environment minister, referring to provincial regulations on how far turbines must be from residential dwellings.

“It told us that we have to make sure that wind turbines never create more than 40 decibels of sound when it comes to the neighbours.”

Ontario is at the forefront of opposition to wind power, and this tribunal challenge dealing with human health and wind turbines is the first of its kind in Canada.

“Obviously, there’s some struggles that are going on in Ontario, right now,” says Tim Weis, wind expert for the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank. “I think it’s important to point out that it’s not everybody in Ontario that’s having problems with wind power. There is definitely certain groups that are more vocal than others.”

Accusations of ‘NIMBYism’

In Alberta, where wind power projects have been around for much longer, resistance is much more muted. The opposition in Ontario has raised accusations from some of NIMBYism, or “not in my back yard.”

“I think that NIMBYs are people that might care about their home, their family, their neighbours and their community,” says McMurtry. “[The label] is not useful. It’s just a stereotyping that doesn’t advance the understanding.”

The Ontario government recently passed a Green Energy Act to advance new, non-polluting sources of energy to replace coal-fired electricity plants. But the government is feeling the pressure from the anti-wind forces, and this week’s hearings represent the latest in a series of hurdles.

Bowing to public pressure, the province declared a moratorium on off-shore wind developments last Friday.

On Jan. 24, a panel three Ontario Superior Court justices heard arguments over whether the provincial government failed to properly consider how wind turbines affect health when it proposed the regulations on setbacks. The judges have yet to rule.

The tribunal isn’t expected to render a decision on the Chatham-Kent project until May.