Wind farms are providing clean power – but are they also making people sick?
First the dogs on Andy Thomas’s farm start to howl. They sense a change in the air as the three 45m turbine blades turn into the wind. Then the blades begin to revolve. Depending on the weather and distance, they can sound like an approaching windstorm, an oncoming train or a jet engine revving for takeoff. At best they make a rhythmic, pounding swoosh.
Thomas runs a 283ha sheep farm near Burra in the Mid-North. He is a no-nonsense bloke whose family has been in the Hallett area for 150 years. The nearest 80m-high turbine is just over a kilometre away but he is close enough to hear more than 10 of them as they create electricity from the wind along the Bald Hill Ranges. “There are probably around 12 that impact on a fella,” Thomas says.
Like many country people, he supported the idea of a wind farm. It was hard to argue against harnessing the wind to generate green electricity for the national grid while bringing economic benefits to the region.
The Hallett No. 2 wind farm is on Hallett Hill, close to the township of Mt Bryan where Thomas lives. The 34 turbines started up in May last year and his life has not been the same since. Neighbours had warned him. “I knew some people who were near Hallett No. 1 who said, ‘where you’re living, you’re going to have a hell of a noise problem’,” Thomas says. “That has proved to be the case.”
His problem – like many I spoke to – is chronic sleep deprivation. Thomas is woken by the noise anywhere from 2am to 4.30am and is unable to get back to sleep. Then he rises, exhausted, to face another day of physical work. “I’m talking about three or three-and-a-half hours of broken sleep,” he says. “When you get up and sit at the table yawning you know damn well you’re having a heck of a day.”
Australia is investing in wind energy at an incredible rate. The Gillard Government wants 20 per cent of the nation’s power to be green by 2020 and rewards those who invest in renewable energy. Before 2003 South Australia had one large wind turbine, at Coober Pedy. Eight years later there are 14 farms, some with 30 or more turbines. The state’s move into wind farms has been so rapid that as of late last year, more than half of Australia’s installed wind power was here – enough capacity, in theory, to provide 30 per cent of our electricity. Yet the only restriction in SA on how far a turbine can be built from a house is on the measurable noise that they make. Western Australia has mandated a 2km buffer zone between turbines and the nearest house, as has Victoria, where the Liberal Premier, Ted Baillieu, last year campaigned in support of those who were struggling with living near them. “These are people with real issues, they’re in real locations with real lives and real problems,” Baillieu said.
Here in SA, the Environment Protection Authority’s head of science and sustainability, Peter Dolan, argues our reliance on noise limits offers greater protection than a blanket setback rule. “We have the most onerous guidelines in the country,” he says.
The problem, however, is not just the sound but an alleged condition – denied by the turbine owners – called wind turbine syndrome, which is a cluster of complaints triggered not just by noise but by infrasound. The noise is inaudible but there are fears that the pulsating low frequency soundwaves can cause a malaise not unlike seasickeness. And like seasickness, it strikes some people and not others.
“Wind turbine syndrome is a uniform collection of signs and symptoms experienced by a significant proportion of people living near large wind turbines,” the American author of Wind Turbine Syndrome, Dr Nina Pierpont, told a Senate inquiry into wind farms in March. “It is also well known to physicists who have worked with low-frequency noise and infrasound in military, naval and space program settings.”
SOUTH of Mt Bryan at Waterloo, 30km south-east of Clare, residents are leaving town. Drive through the sleepy hamlet – the home of former Birdsville Track mailman Tom Kruse whose picture is on the town’s sign – and there are protest signs on gates in the main street. The 37 turbines at the Waterloo farm dominate the dry and stony landscape. They run for about 15km along a ridge 4km west of the Tothill Belt, and each has a 3MW generator, 30 per cent bigger than those at Mt Bryan. Their size and proximity to the town may explain why the Waterloo farm, more than any other in SA, seems to be tearing a local community apart. The turbines have to be close to the mains supply because wind power cannot be stored; it has to go straight into the grid. Most of Waterloo’s problems can be traced to its location near the Robertstown power interconnector, a grid intersection point.
There are those to whom the turbines make no difference; they sleep as normal, like the way they look, and welcome the green investment. Others seem to be struggling to survive.
“I wake up in shock, my heart pounding, then I get no sleep,” says Andreas Marciniak, who lives about 3km from the Waterloo ridge. “The sound goes through you. If you’ve ever had seasickness, it’s like that, when you feel like you’re going to throw up but you know you’re not. It’s a lot worse than people think it is.”
Marciniak and his brother Johannes have serious pre-existing conditions, including angina, diabetes and high blood pressure. They separately bought property in Waterloo hoping to live a simple, almost self-sufficient life, but Johannes has walked out of a rundown service station he was renovating, claiming to fear for his life. He is staying in a friend’s caravan at Manoora, about 15km away. “I had blood pressure before but about six months ago I lost control of it, and the diabetes,” Johannes says. “I can’t stay here. After the two spells I had yesterday and the day before, I’ll be dead by the middle of this year.”
After 42 years in Waterloo, Roger Kruse, who is a great-nephew of mailman Tom, is furious at what he says the wind farm has done to his life. He hears one or more whenever the wind is easterly. “I’m waking up at three, quarter to four, quarter to five, six o’clock,” he says. “It’s very noisy. The house vibrates, you can actually feel it.” In March he bought a house at Saddleworth, about 30km south. When the wind is blowing the wrong way, he will leave town with his wife and three children and stay at Saddleworth, he says. “I don’t want to move and that’s buggering me so bad,” he says. “I’ve been there 42 years in the town, never wanted to move, but you just cannot go without sleep.”
There is a serious body of anecdotal evidence in SA that says living close to wind turbines is at very least disruptive to lifestyle and potentially damaging to health. Small pockets of anger and resentment are bubbling away at toxic levels in Mt Bryan, Waterloo and parts of the South-East, as it is in communities in Victoria and New South Wales. Similar stories have come out of the UK, Canada and Europe.
There is no scientific evidence that wind farms, when properly installed, are harmful. But something is clearly going on. What alarms some people – particularly those living in the turbines’ shadow – is that there is no reputable scientific evidence to say that living close to a wind farm is not harmful to health. The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council conducted a literature review and concluded that there was nothing supporting a conclusion of adverse effects.
The wind farm companies argue there is no problem. “We do not accept that wind turbine syndrome exists,” says AGL’s head of wind energy in Australia, Steven Altschwager. Acciona, which is behind the proposed Allendale East wind farmin the state’s South-East, says there is a small number of anecdotal reports that have not been backed by scientific or medical research, or diagnosis.
They have Premier Mike Rann’s support. When protesters turned out at the opening of the Waterloo farm in February, he dismissed their concerns. “There are 100,000 turbines around the world and there has been study after study and there have been no negative health impacts,” Rann said.
However the SA branch of the AMA wants a local study to be urgently done, particularly because in Australia wind farms are larger in scale and the turbines tend to be bigger. “We are certainly not saying there is any evidence there is such a thing as wind turbine syndrome but what there isn’t is any information to look at the health effects,” state president Andrew Lavender says. “A proper process would be for a medical study to be organised independent of both the interest groups and the wind farm providers.” Lavender is looking to the CSIRO or to the NHMRC to commission a study and believes that everyone will benefit from certainty. “There isn’t really any medical study out there in the Australian context,” he says. “The other thing is, if there is such a thing as wind farm syndrome, are some people susceptible and not others? That may well be the case, just like some people are susceptible to car sickness and motion sickness and some aren’t.”
Protesters are calling for a moratorium on any more wind farms until the medical issues have been conclusively resolved. Last year a former rural GP from Crystal Brook, Sarah Laurie, founded the Waubra Foundation, a national wind farm protest group named after the Victorian wind farm near Ballarat which has more than 100 turbines. Last month a former Liberal Minister for Health, Michael Woolridge, became a director. His presence is something of a coup for the group’s credibility. “Being a doctor he is aware of the problem; being a former health minister he understands completely what it takes to change the views,” says fellow director Peter Mitchell, an engineer.
Laurie says she is not anti-wind farm but wants them to be sited appropriately so they’re not driving people out of their homes “and out of their minds as well”. “I think there should be a temporary halt in further approval and construction of wind farm developments that are closer than 10km,” she says. “Wind farms that are further than that, go for it. But 10km is the limit at which people are expressing symptoms.”
Turbines have become political and late last year Family First MP Steve Fielding successfully moved for a Senate inquiry into their effects. “For too long the concerns of those who are sick have been dismissed,” Senator Fielding said in November. “Given the mounting physical evidence from those living near wind farms, I think it’s only fair for the Parliament to have a look at what is happening.”
The committee is due to report next month and so far more than 800 submissions have been received. One is from Richard Paltridge, a dairy farmer who last year challenged Acciona in the Environment Resources and Development Court over the proposed $175 million, 46-turbine wind farm near his dairy at Allendale East. At least six of the turbines will be less than 1km from his dairy and at night his cows will be in a paddock 500m away. He is worried about the impact of shadow flicker from the rotating blades, turbine noise and infrasound on the milk production of his herd. A decision is expected this month.
The opposition to wind farms is not about greenies versus the rest. Ally Fricker would seem to be a prime candidate for embracing wind energy. A pioneer of the anti-pesticide movement, in the 1970s she opened Stall 72, the first organic food stall at the Adelaide Central Market. She later formed the Organic Food Movement which developed some of the first guidelines for organic produce. She is a greenie who remains implacably opposed to nuclear energy. In 1996 she and her partner, Bob Lamb, bought a small property near Waterloo in an area where there was still natural bush.
In August last year, the wind farm started up. “I heard a noise and thought it was a big wind storm coming from some distance away,” says Fricker, who lives 10km from the nearest turbine. “It was dead calm at our place. After I while I thought, ‘that’s odd, that wind never got here’. Eventually the penny dropped and I realised I was hearing the wind farm.”
She and Lamb have become a rallying point for the Stop Industrial Wind Turbines movement. It was not what Fricker planned at this stage of her life; she thought her days of protest were behind her. Her pamphlet – named in a nod to her hippy past, The Answer is Blowing in the Wind – urges people to speak out. She knows this goes against the grain for country folk, many of whom cherish the simple life and don’t want trouble with their neighbours. “People have loose networks based around church or social groups and they’re not used to organising in any social action sense,” she says. “They are very worried about it causing division in these very small communities where everyone literally knows everyone else’s business.”
Stories circulate in these communities about gag clauses that stop those who sign contracts for turbines from speaking against them. While confidentiality surrounds the commercial deal done between the power company and the landowner on whose property a turbine will be built, the claims that people cannot speak out are denied.
Acciona, a large Spanish-owned company, says their contracts contain no such clause. “There is nothing in any or our contracts that would impose any confidential obligations on people to speak about any health concerns they might have,” says Acciona communications director, Tricia Kent. The company also denied having intervened to prevent a former Waubra resident, Trish Godfrey, from giving evidence early this year in the Allendale East case. “We took no action to prevent Mrs Godfrey from testifying,” Kent insists.
Julie Quast joined the protest campaign with great reluctance. The Waterloo wind farm has destroyed her personal dream. She and her husband bought on the ridge six years ago when plans for the wind farm were in abeyance. She says she saw paperwork from the company saying it was not going ahead. They intended to build on the hill and use the land for crops, sheep and alpacas. Not long after, the wind farm was revived.
“We could not build on our land because we would be 1200m from the closest turbine in a direct line,” she says. She and her husband now rent a house owned by his employer, just over 2km from the nearest turbine. She can see them and, at night in particular, she is affected by them. “It gets very distressing at night because I’ll wake up sometimes with my ears pounding – not all the time,” she says. “Sometimes it may not be that windy but some nights you’re bombarded with noise if it’s an east wind.” She is resigned to living with them but says her community is being torn apart. “We are members of a church and there is a real split in the church. We have heard of families being split,” she says. “I don’t know how this community will recover.”
Fricker says in her area families are divided and neighbour is against neighbour. “Most of our neighbours don’t speak to us any more. It really is incredibly divisive and people hate that in these little communities,” she says. “They hate going into the pub and being shunned.”
Money is partly driving this division. It is widely agreed that the power companies pay landholders about $10,000 a year to place a turbine on their property. So far, none of those who are being paid have complained. But the unequal spread of rewards has contributed to the bitterness. Julie Quast refuses on principle to allow one on her land, saying she would feel hypocritical. So someone else is being paid for the wind turbines that are causing her problems.
Ben and Kerry Heinrich are paid about $30,000 a year for three turbines at Waterloo and the nearest is less than 500m from their back door. Heinrich, whose mixed farm is just off the Barrier Highway, says his family is not bothered by them. “Maybe sometimes when you’re lying in bed you can just hear it but it doesn’t affect us. We all sleep like babies,” he says. But he agrees the money is important.
Heinrich, who has a young daughter, Emmison, understands the community division and says he would not have allowed the turbines so close without a financial incentive. “I can understand people who aren’t getting paid but who have them nearby getting a bit funny about it, if they can hear them,” he says.
Greens MLC Mark Parnell is committed to wind power as an essential element in a renewable energy future but says a new industry is feeling its way. “At that level it looks very unfair,” he says of the payments. “I don’t know if there are ways to spread the love around a bit more.”
The opposition is not universal. At Snowtown, the wind farm has been trouble-free. “I’m absolutely at a loss to see what the problem is,” says Snowtown farmer Paul McCormack, who has a turbine about 600m from his house. “It hasn’t affected our TV reception and the flashing lights – we pull the blind and go to bed. I think they’re wonderful.”
In the case of Andy Thomas, the sound from AGL’s turbines at Mt Bryan exceeds EPA levels and they have been working with him for more than a year trying to lower the noise. The problem is what the company calls “tonality”, a discernible tone coming out of the gearbox. They also, Thomas says, removed the flashing red lights. Late last year AGL shut down six machines for two weeks and packed foam inside to deaden the noise. It didn’t work. Next they experimented with shutting down six turbines when the wind reached certain speeds. It helped but is a temporary solution. “We see (shutting down turbines) as a temporary solution to keep Andy in a position to be able to enjoy his property without us interfering with him,” says Altschwager.
The rush to wind power in SA may be self-limiting, at least in the short term. Accessing the national grid is getting harder and the latest infrastructure report by Engineers Australia says congestion is already a problem. Networks in the Mid-North and South-East are already struggling to cope and – not unlike a traffic jam of electricity signals – the lines clog up when the wind blows.
But Roaring 40s plans to build two more wind farms near Waterloo, one at Stony Gap to the north on a continuation of the Tothills, and another at Robertstown to the east. If it happens, Fricker says she will leave. “We consider those areas like a buffer to the Tothill Belt and they contain patches of remnant peppermint gum which is highly endangered as an ecosystem,” she says.
She will not go without a fight. She and Bob Lamb are part of a claim recently lodged in the Environment Court protesting against a new wind mast at the proposed Stony Gap farm. “If these next two go ahead we would find it very hard to imagine staying here,” she says. “But we won’t go easily, that’s for sure.”
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