Wind turbines are closing in on four generations of the Quinn family who still live at Mt Bryan in South Australia’s picturesque and productive Mt Lofty Ranges.
Rosemary Quinn, 74, says she spends her nights locked inside the 1900s stone house she has occupied for 55 years. She shuts the windows and sets the ceiling fan on high to cover the noise of the wind turbines 2km away.
Quinn’s son Bill and his wife Jenny are about to gamble their 200ha property in a Federal Court challenge to the expansion plans of wind farm developer AGL.
Bill Quinn’s daughter Deb, 32, who works for businesses that profit from the wind farm developments, is worried about the future of her daughter, Jacqueline, and what long-term exposure to nearby wind turbines may mean.
The Quinns are not alone.
They are part of an increasingly vocal army of people in rural settlements who believe they have become collateral damage in Australia’s rush to embrace wind as an alternative energy to combat climate change.
Stories such as the Quinns’, and much, much worse, are scattered through the more than 1000 submissions to a Senate inquiry into the effect of wind farm developments on rural communities.
The inquiry by the Senate community affairs committee has certainly received many submissions of support for wind-farm developments to meet the federal government’s 20 per cent renewable energy target by 2020. Local community and sporting groups have praised the donations they have received.
But alongside the positive feedback are stories of gag orders, split communities, strongarm tactics and details of awful physical symptoms that people feel sure are the result of living in the auditory and sun-flicker shadow of wind turbine developments that are sweeping the rural landscape.
Family First senator Steve Fielding, who pushed for the Senate inquiry, says: “This is not a question about the viability of renewable technologies. It is to have a look at any adverse health effects for people living in close proximity.”
He says the Senate committee has approached the inquiry with an open mind, but “certainly there are people whose health has deteriorated to the stage that they have had to move out at a complete loss to themselves”.
Public hearings will be held in Canberra on March 25, Ballarat on March 28, Melbourne on March 29 and Perth on March 31.
Glenn Brew of Evansford in Victoria, near the controversial Waubra wind farm, has told the committee he was beginning to think he had a brain tumour until he discovered that other farmers in the area were experiencing headaches similar to his when they were close to the turbines.
Steven Hilary, 50, also of Waubra, has told the committee he is convinced the turbines pose a serious health risk.
“On April 22nd at 4am I suffered a heart attack and to date I have been continually suffering blood pressure issues, heart palpitations, headaches, dizziness, nausea, unbearable tinnitus and disrupted sleep patterns that led to numerous ambulance trips to hospital,” he wrote.
The Senate inquiry clearly has opened a can of worms: affected rural residents believe city dwellers with a penchant for green power have been happy to ignore the situation. Despite what opponents may say, this is not a community backlash that can be dismissed as being rooted in climate change denial or greed.
When Rosemary Quinn first heard wind turbines were coming to her area she visited the already established wind farm developments at Yorke Peninsula and Cape Jervis to have a look.
“I thought they were a terrific invention and we really needed to get all this green power,” she says.
“People now just say I have got a set against them and if they passed us a lot of money it would be all right, but I had a sermon in church this morning that money doesn’t matter. I don’t want their money, I just want some peace and quiet in the last months of my life.”
Sarah Laurie, a South Australian GP who has become a rallying point for people concerned about health effects from living near wind turbines, also cannot be written off as a stalking horse for big coal or the nuclear industry, as her detractors would suggest.
Laurie has worked among South Australia’s Aboriginal communities on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands, where her husband still works as a travelling dentist.
She is a progressive with rooftop solar panels on her Crystal Brook property, and has alienated some friends by asking inconvenient questions about the green revolution. “I still am supportive of wind turbines in the right place,” Laurie says.
“I believe it is a siting issue primarily and we need to get the information in order to site the turbines safely.
“We have a window of opportunity now to get this right. If we don’t I am concerned there is an unfolding public disaster.
“This is not a NIMBY [not in my back yard] issue,” Laurie says. “I don’t think they should be in anybody’s back yard.”
All Laurie is requesting is that rigorous tests, independent of the industry or concerned residents, be carried out. Laurie knows her research, which catalogues a series of health effects among those living near wind turbines, will always be considered tainted by the fact there is a proposal for a wind farm near her own property.
But her findings mirror the results of other research that has also struggled for official recognition from the wind industry and government agencies.
The international research can be traced to British doctor Amanda Harry, who was introduced to a couple living near a wind farm in Cornwall in 2003.
Harry’s research was followed up by South Gippsland GP, David Issa, who surveyed residents living 1.5km to 2km of the Toora Wind Farm in Victoria.
Meanwhile, in Canada, pharmacist Carmen Krough, a senior pharmacist with Health Canada, joined with Bob McMurtry, an ex-dean of a medical school in Ontario, to form a Society for Wind Vigilance in 2009 after experiencing symptoms while staying near a wind turbine development.
As the Ontario Society for Wind Vigilance was being formed, Yale University graduate Nina Pierpont published her survey results, which described a pattern of symptoms that developed or were exacerbated by the turbines, and which disappeared when the subjects left their homes, only to return again when they returned.
She coined the term “wind turbine syndrome” to describe the symptoms that included sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, headaches, tinnitus, dizziness, nausea, rapid heart rate and panic attacks. Pierpont recommended more research be undertaken into the effect of infrasound, or very low-frequency sound waves.
The wind industry has rejected all the international research and the need for further research into the effect of infrasound. But it has been prepared to buy out some affected property owners with non-disclosure clauses that prevent the sellers from talking about their experience with turbines.
Laurie says the widespread use of confidentiality clauses has made it difficult for land holders who have agreed to host turbines, or those who have been bought out, to provide first-hand accounts of any health effects to researchers.
The Clean Energy Council, the peak body representing Australia’s renewable energy and energy efficiency industries, told the Senate inquiry that wind energy was an integral part of the renewable energy mix.
It said a survey commissioned by the NSW government in mid-2010 found 80 per cent of residents were supportive of wind farms being built in their local region and more than 60 per cent supported them at 1km to 2km from their residence.
The council cited a National Health and Medical Research Council statement that “there is currently no published scientific evidence to positively link wind turbines with adverse health effects”. There is also a World Health Organisation statement: “There is no reliable evidence that sounds below the hearing threshold produce physiological or psychological effect.”
The council said the American and Canadian Wind Energy Associations had established a scientific advisory panel comprising medical doctors, audiologists and acoustic professionals from the US, Canada, Denmark and Britain, which found labels such as “wind turbine syndrome” were not a recognised medical diagnosis but reflective of symptoms associated with annoyance.
The Clean Energy Council’s points are echoed by the main wind turbine companies in their submissions to the Senate inquiry.
All lean heavily on the statement by the NHMRC. But the NHMRC report does not give wind turbines the clean bill of health that the industry claims. In correspondence to Peter Mitchell from Victoria, who set up the Waubra Foundation with Laurie, the NHMRC said it acknowledged there were opposing viewpoints regarding wind turbines and their potential effects on human health.
“It is important to note that these views are presented by a variety of groups or people, including those with vested interests,” the NHMRC said. “It is important to note that the review, its conclusions and recommendations are based on published scientific evidence at the time of writing and may be updated in future to take into account new evidence as it emerges.”
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