LENOX – In a surprise development, the town’s Wind Energy Research Panel appears to be moving toward informal agreement that the proposed municipal wind turbine installation atop Lenox Mountain may be a nonstarter because of health and safety concerns and uncertainty about its financial benefits to the town.
Panel moderator Kenneth Fowler told The Eagle on Friday that the panelists are sending out a “proceed with caution” signal.
Thursday night’s meeting was the most harmonious session since the panelists began their work in late October with a deadline of Jan. 15 for a report to the Select Board.
Members had split into pairs last week to explore key issues of financing, health impact and environmental effects.
The show-stopper Thursday night came when a project supporter on the panel, Dr. Michael Kaplan, voiced his opinion that because of limited information, “it’s impossible to know what’s safe” regarding potential noise and vibration effects that could impact Lenox and Richmond residents who live less than one mile from the proposed Lenox Mountain site.
“I’m a doctor,” Kaplan elaborated under questioning from fellow panelist Eric Vincelette, a project supporter. “If a patient comes in and says, ‘Listen, the town is wanting to build a turbine a half-mile from my house, do [you] think it’s a good idea? I’d have to say no.”
Kaplan’s research partner, MIT engineer Christopher Magee, a project opponent, agreed that “putting them within a mile of people’s homes on that site is probably very risky for the town.”
“It’s very unlikely that Lenox would choose to put a wind turbine within a mile of someone’s home,” Kaplan said, “regardless of whether these effects are real or not. We don’t know what’s real and what isn’t real.
“If we can’t find a site that’s a mile away from people’s homes, we probably can’t build a wind turbine in Lenox. That’s my opinion,” he said. “It seems that the site that’s been chosen is too close to people’s homes.”
There are 60 homes – 20 in Lenox, 40 in Richmond – within one mile of the proposed installation, and 168 within a mile and a half, according to unofficial estimates.
“Even if we had all of the data saying it’s safe, it’s still going to be unsettling, because there are differences of opinion about it,” Kaplan said.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to come to a clear answer to say ‘yes, there’s a safe distance.’ Š But if we come up with a safe distance, it’s going to be over a mile, with the information we have now.”
Reacting to Kaplan’s comments, Magee was momentarily speechless, but then said, “I’m surprised, because I thought coming to a conclusion would be much harder. Š But I’m very close to your conclusion.”
“There are health effects of turbines,” Kaplan said. “Only noise annoyance and sleep disturbance have been demonstrated conclusively.”
He said the distance from a turbine that affects residents is unknown, most reported effects on health are anecdotal and have not been subjected to rigorous studies, and the actual distance from a turbine that might affect health varies with terrain and forestation.
“Residents who live within a mile of turbines might have to move and sell their homes,” Kaplan asserted, “because they were afraid they might have health effects; whether or not those fears would be realized is unknown.”
Magee acknowledged there are disagreements among sound-vibration and health experts. He added that there is no “definitive study” detailing the impact of low-frequency acoustic vibration on sleep disturbance up to a mile from turbines.
The panelists who explored financial impacts – alternate member Jo Anne Magee, a project opponent, and Eric Vincelette, a supporter – argued that many unknowns make it difficult to determine whether the town’s taxpayers would see any benefit from the production of wind energy for municipal needs.