A landmark environmental decision has cleared the way for wind turbine developments under Ontario law.
The province’s environmental review tribunal says it can find no evidence that wind farms being developed under current regulations cause direct or indirect harm to human health.
The project – a wind farm being developed by Suncor near Thamesville – was the first to be appealed under the Green Energy Act.
But the tribunal also said the issue isn’t settled forever. “The debate should not be simplified to one about whether wind turbines can cause harm to humans,” the two-member panel wrote in its decision.
“The evidence presented to the tribunal demonstrates that they can, if facilities are placed too close to residents,” it said.
“The debate has now evolved to one of degree. The question that should be asked is: What protections, such as permissible noise levels or setback distances, are appropriate to protect human health?”
Ontario rules require turbines to be set back 550 metres from human dwellings. An Ontario court upheld the regulation earlier this year.
The lawyer representing those who opposed the development said the ruling does leaves the door open to appeals of other wind projects.
“It would be surprising if there weren’t more challenges,” Eric Gillespie said.
By acknowledging the possibility of health damage, “it appears to open the door to further discussion,” Gillespie told the Star.
The tribunal had been asked to rule on an application by Suncor for a 20-megawatt wind project with eight turbines near Thamesville.
In its decision, the tribunal says it found no evidence that the wind development would cause serious, direct harm such as hearing loss to people living in the vicinity.
But people living near large wind projects have also reported suffering a wide variety of symptoms such as insomnia, ringing ears, dizziness, nausea and stress.
The tribunal said it found evidence of a “healthy scientific debate” about whether turbines cause any or all of these symptoms.
But it said the onus was on the individuals and groups who opposed the wind farm to prove that noise levels from the turbines are high enough to cause serious harm.
“In this hearing, it was not shown that they are,” the tribunal ruled. “Noise levels are not high enough to cause serious harm.”
The tribunal mused whether turbine noise could be something like tobacco smoke. For years, smoking was thought to be harmless; then evidence turned up to the contrary.
But the tribunal dismisses that as a “poor analogy.”
“Ontario already recognizes there are some risks with respect to wind turbines,” it said.
“The overall debate is not a simplistic one involving ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but really one about safe limits.”
The Canadian Wind Energy Association welcomed the decision saying it is “consistent with the balance of expert scientific and medical information, which clearly indicates there is no direct link between wind turbines and effects on human health.”
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