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Energy, quarries key issues at forum

FERGUS – Wind, and the sound it makes when turning wind turbines, was a key issue during Monday’s Wellington-Halton Hills election forum, held in Fergus.

Strong community opposition has surfaced in the northern part of the provincial riding over a proposed wind farm that many believe has potentially negative health effects due to low-level noise. On two occasions during a forum, sponsored by the Guelph Mercury and moderated by Mercury managing editor Phil Andrews, candidates were asked where they and their party stood on the future of large-scale wind energy projects.

About 60 people turned out for the forum – a turnout that may reflect a broader disinterest in the campaign. Attendance at forums held at the Centre Wellington Sportsplex during past campaigns has been much larger.

Monday night’s forum was a model of decorum. Progressive Conservative incumbent Ted Arnott, New Democratic Party candidate Dale Hamilton, and Liberal Party candidate Moya Johnson observed the upmost civility during a one-and-a-half hour forum. (The Green party’s Raymond Dartsch phoned in his regrets due to a “health concern” in his family.)

It became apparent from the outset that the Wellington-Halton Hills campaign features at least three strong and articulate candidates, each with a breadth of community engagement experience.

The fear that wind turbines cause health problems has caught on in Centre Wellington, and has been the main impetus behind recent protests against wind farms.

Arnott said he is listening to those fears and has advocated for a moratorium on large-scale wind systems pending the outcome of health studies. He does not believe that a 550-metre setback from dwellings is far enough, and he cast some doubt over whether the present Liberal government is telling Ontarians all it knows about the potential health risks of wind turbines.

But Liberal Johnson suggested the fears are largely unfounded. Turbines operate at roughly 40 decibels, which is a “soft noise” no louder than normal conversation, and far less intrusive or grating than highway noise. Many Ontarians live next to highways, she said.

“Wind turbine noise is really small compared to the noise that really annoys people,” she said.

Hamilton, who is returning to political candidacy after a 20-year absence, said a New Democratic government would ensure that noise levels from wind turbines were acceptable, and would take steps to encourage smaller-scale wind systems rather than the massive systems that have sprung up on Ontario’s landscape in recent times.

While economic uncertainty, poverty and taxation were on the minds of voters at the forum, alternative versus conventional energy, mega quarries and water-taking permits were also thrown into the mix.

The New Democrats are against the Melancthon Township quarry proposal, Hamilton said. Opponents of the so-called mega quarry plan (it is north of Shelburne and not in Wellington-Halton Hills) say it poses a threat to critically important headwaters. Hamilton agrees.

Arnott said Ontario must find an appropriate balance between the need for aggregates and the wishes of the people most impacted by such proposals. It is clear, he said, that a rigorous approval process will be brought to bear on the proposal, and he encouraged Ontarians to continue to raise their concerns and make their voices heard in the process.

Johnson said “no stone would be left unturned” as the environmental assessment progresses.

One questioner wanted to know where the three candidates stood on nuclear energy. Both Arnott and Johnson said their respective parties see it an integral to a balanced and reliable electricity system. Hamilton said her party would halt the building of new nuclear plants, while making it more affordable for families to make their homes energy efficient.

Arnott was asked a basic economics question: If a Progressive Conservative government cuts various taxes, how will it make up the lost revenue? On the issue, Arnott offered a long-standing fiscal conservative refrain: Tax cuts stimulate economic activity and growth, which in turn puts more money in public coffers.

Throughout the night, Hamilton repeated the New Democratic pledge to stop giving tax breaks to large corporations, to put a cap on the salaries of the top executives of public corporations, and to use those savings to stimulate health promotion, education and small business development.

At one point in the proceedings, Arnott bemoaned what he perceived to be a lack of focus on the environment during the campaign. “It’s disappointing that the environment is not coming up more as an issue,” he said in answer to a question about protecting nature and endangered species.

On the same question, Johnson said there are stringent regulations in place to protect endangered species in the province. Often when there is a proposed land development, “the Jefferson salamander seems to be everywhere,” she said. Careful moderating and studies are always carried out to determine if the endangered species is present, proof that there are strong protective measures in place.

Hamilton concluded the evening by saying she has always been a person “who wanted to make the world a better place. Maybe that makes me sound like an old hippie.” She made no apologies, and said the New Democrats are the party most focused on making the world better.

Arnott said Wellington-Halton Hills needs a MPP whose beliefs and values reflect those of the constituents – one who inspires respect and confidence in the legislature, one who is trustworthy and has integrity. He believes he is that person.

Johnson urged voters to give her Liberals a third term in order to continue to build on the many positive developments it has started, as opposed to “taking us back to the dark days” of the previous Progressive Conservative government.