Editor’s note: As Fairhaven looks toward two turbines to claim its stake in what some people consider clean energy’s future, the present has become a divisive nightmare. While the debate rages in SouthCoast, two different Massachusetts towns show how differently wind power can affect the people and places that receive them. In one town, the turbines are a source of pioneering pride. The other? A bitter – and some say literal – pain.
On a chilly weekday, atop a capped landfill, the massive blades of Hull’s second municipal wind turbine sliced the air with a rhythmic “Whoosh.”
The roughly 330-foot, 1.8 megawatt machine and its 241-foot sister windmill generate up to 13 percent of the South Shore town’s annual energy needs – becoming to many “kind of modern iconic symbols of Hull,” according to Town Manager Philip Lemnios.
But if Hull shows wind power’s promise, Falmouth spotlights its pitfalls.
As Fairhaven fights over its own planned nearly 400-foot, 1.5-megawatt turbines, these two coastal towns offer glimpses of windmills-as-neighbors that are even more night-and-day than the studies both sides of the issue use to back their views.
Hull’s wind project has earned the town national recognition, whereas Falmouth’s has whipped up litigation pending in court. Greg Messier, who lives less than 1,500 feet (based on a rough Google Maps estimate) from the larger of Hull’s two turbines, called the sound “soothing.”
But Barry Funfar, in a letter to the editor of The Advocate (a member of the SouthCoast Media Group), described the impact of living 1,662 feet from Falmouth’s Wind 1 as torture.
Still, the contrast might be most evident in the turbines themselves. Hull’s are spinning and helping to keep the town’s energy rates down, according to Ilysse Messier, Greg Messier’s wife and an employee of the Hull Municipal Light Plant.
Amid health impact complaints from neighborhood residents, Falmouth’s turbines stood on a recent morning like multimillion-dollar statues.
“I think everybody points to Hull as a real success story with wind power, not only in Massachusetts, but nationally,” said Andy Brydges, senior director for renewable energy generation for the quasi-public Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
But, added the center’s communications manager Kate Plourd, of all the state’s wind projects, “we’re not aware of any complaints at the level of Falmouth.”
Like Hull, which began operating its wind turbines in 2001 and 2006, Falmouth’s turbines are both made by the Danish company Vestas but stand higher than Hull’s at almost 400 feet. Dubbed Wind 1 and Wind 2, Falmouth’s 1.65-megawatt turbines are at the wastewater treatment plant in the Blacksmith Shop Road area, and a third, privately-owned turbine spins nearby. After years of battle in Fairhaven, work is now under way off Arsene Street to install two nearly 400 foot, 1.5-megawatt turbines by the Chinese company Sinovel.
When Falmouth began exploring wind energy several years ago, “I was all for it,” said Mark Cool, whose Falmouth home on Fire Tower Road is 1,655 feet from Wind 1 but whose property line extends closer. “I wasn’t so much concerned about saving the Earth or green ideals and climate change,” Cool, 53, said. “My focus was “» this was going to keep in check my escalating property tax.”
But after the first turbine started, so did the headaches – a pressure sensation Cool said he’d never experienced before and hasn’t suffered since the turbine stopped last year.
Within weeks of the turbine’s operational launch in spring of 2010, “neighbors in the vicinity started talking “» started sharing feelings, symptoms,” said Cool, who noted that his wife started grinding her teeth at night. Dealing with the headaches, he said, meant either leaving his property or going to his basement behind a cinderblock wall until the pressure waned.
Blacksmith Shop Road resident Kathryn Elder remembers the first time she heard the sound of the wind turbine that was built about 1,700 feet from her house.
Getting out of her car on the first day Wind 1 was in operation, “immediately, I realized there’s this weird huge noise everywhere,” she said. “It was really (an) awful feeling to realize that we have a problem of that magnitude.”
Although Elder said the severity of the problem varied with the wind direction and intensity, ranging from “mildly annoying to really feeling like you’re being assaulted,” she likened the noise to a jet plane that never takes off or is about to land – punctuated by a thumping like a giant sneaker swirling in the dryer.
“In our house at night, the noise can be particularly bad,” she said, describing how she and her husband have been repeatedly awakened by it. “That kind of sleep disturbance has a profound effect on your health and your well-being.”
Other symptoms she noted were ringing in the ears and dizziness upon standing quickly.
In his December letter to The Advocate newspaper, Falmouth resident Funfar said symptoms people have reported include high blood pressure, migraines and irritability.
“I am certain that many, if not most people, have not a clue as to how ‘affected’ with anxiety, stress, palpitations, panic attacks, depression, even suicidal tendencies some of us experience,” he wrote. —» I need to avoid the turbine, to stay indoors at my property, and to take frequent trips away from my home.”
All of these problems can occur in connection with other medical issues; the Mayo Clinic, for example, cites anxiety, cold medications and exercise among eight common causes of heart palpitations and says kidney problems and tumors of the adrenal gland are among causes of high blood pressure.
Windwise, a Fairhaven citizens group, says many of them— such as headaches, anxiety, dizziness and ear ringing – are also consistent with “Wind Turbine Syndrome,” a condition the group says results from “infrasound,” or sound at such low-frequency that it’s inaudible to the human ear but is still acoustic energy that travels in waves.
The term is the title of a book published in 2009 by Dr. Nina Pierpont, using a name she chose for a “seemingly incongruous constellation of symptoms” coming from turbine infrasound and low-frequency sound, according to the book’s description on Amazon.com.
A panel of state-appointed academic experts studying existing science on wind turbines recently noted “limited scientific evidence of an association between annoyance and prolonged shadow flicker “» and potential transitory cognitive and physical health effects,” the DEP said in a news release. Sometimes likened to a strobe light, the panel report defines flicker as the effect that results from blades passing between a person and the sun.
At the same time, though, the panel found no evidence of a set of health problems indicative of a “wind turbine syndrome” from exposure.
Nevertheless, a study co-authored last year by an environmental sound consultant – and receiving grant funding from a Falmouth wind project opponent – found that a stay at a home near the town’s privately-owned turbine caused dizziness, anxiety, nausea and other symptoms, according to The Cape Cod Times. The authors also noted that symptoms worsened with higher wind- and blade speeds.
But Patrick Souza, who lives in a six-person household on Blacksmith Shop Road, said he hasn’t experienced any turbine-related medical problems at all.
“No one in this house has had any health impact,” he said.
Still, Cool and Elder aren’t alone in their medical woes. In a neighborhood survey Elder conducted with another resident last year, at least one member in 39 of 54 responding households reported having their sleep affected by the turbines. People in 37 households said that the noise or disturbance of the turbines had bothered someone in their home.
In November, town officials agreed to shut off Wind 1 until April town meeting, according to the Cape Cod Times, which said the agreement called for Wind 2 to go operational as soon as possible for two one-month long testing and complaint-logging periods. In December, the newspaper reported that after these tests, Wind 2 would also halt until April.
Elder says she’s not against wind energy and wants to do her part to reduce carbon emissions.
“I would give up my car and ride my bicycle for the rest of my life if I could just shut that turbine off,” she said. “Move it where it doesn’t hurt people.”
Not a peep from Hull
If a hulking turbine is triggering health woes in Falmouth, you might expect the same outcry from residents near Hull’s largest turbine – which is shorter but still over 300 feet and has a higher power capacity – right?
If Hull residents are suffering similar problems, they’re not being as vocal about it. Eight people living near the larger of the two turbines and interviewed by The Standard-Times all gave generally positive feedback.
The sound of the turbine’s “just a ‘Shh. Shh,'” said David Nardo, who rents a home near Hull 2. “It’s not something that’s going to keep you up at night.”
Nardo was among residents who lived closest to the turbine, and said the flicker the blades can cast in his driveway is somewhat annoying but doesn’t extend into his home. As for the noise he can hear faintly, inside, “you become immune to it. … It’s there but it isn’t there.”
Two doors down, Maria Rosa-Restivo said the turbine doesn’t bother her.
Likewise, Bob Borden, who bought a home less than 800 feet from the turbine after its construction had nothing negative to say about it.
“If I could run an extension cord over there, it’d be even better,” he quipped.
Since Hull 1 and Hull 2 started operating, respectively, in 2001 and in 2006, the town’s Health Department has received “no complaints of any medical issues or illnesses related to the turbines,” according to Public Health Director Joyce Sullivan.
Similarly, in bordering Hingham, which faces both turbines, “I haven’t heard any complaints come to our office from the Hull facility,” said the town’s Executive Health Officer Bruce Capman.
But living just across the Weir River from Hull 2, Hingham resident Khela Thorne said she finds the turbine “extremely irritating.”
The turbine casts a giant shadow that’s “just very distracting. It’s not natural,” said Thorne, who said her husband, David doesn’t like the turbine either. “It’s a very quiet, pristine area so then you have that shadow that just doesn’t fit.”
She also complained of the incessant “whooshing” she can hear in summer with her windows open.
“It grates on you,” she said. As for whether she’s suffered any medical problems, she described how difficult it is to tell whether her onset of high blood pressure or her children’s ear infections are related.
“We’ve actually gone across to the neighborhood that we can look at – which is actually Hull – and just out of curiosity, knocked on some doors and said, ‘This shadow must drive you insane,” Thorne said. “Everyone seems to love it there.”
Why the difference
What accounts for the marked difference between the two towns’ overall experiences?
“We don’t have firm conclusions on what’s happening” in Falmouth, Brydges of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center said. “We have engaged technical consultants on their behalf as well as a facilitator to engage the town in discussions about potential mitigation options.”
Cool pointed to the fact that, since Hull’s located across Boston Harbor from Logan International Airport, the waves and planes cause more background noise than in Falmouth. Elder, whose husband is party to the pending litigation against Falmouth and the Falmouth Board of Appeals with Cool, Funfar and other residents, offered a similar observation.
Also, “people are really reluctant to stand up and publicly complain,” she said. “… This has turned my life upside down. I really never thought I would be pitted against my own town.”
Thorne, who described Hingham residents’ lack of say in the Hull turbine, revealed another potential reason for the gap.
“Because we’re Hingham and that’s on Hull property, who do you call if you have a complaint?” she asked.
Despite the sound of noise associated with being near Logan, “those planes they go over and they’re gone. The shadow goes over and it’s gone. The noise goes over and it’s gone,” said Thorne, who said she thinks the turbine affects different people in different ways. The windmill’s sound “doesn’t stop.”
Hull’s project also piggybacked on a legacy of at least two centuries of on-land wind use in town, according to a case study by UMass Amherst, which references the fact that Hull 1 took the place of a smaller turbine that started spinning near the high school in the 1980s.
Malcolm Brown, a Hull wind champion who once built a home in the Catskills above a small hydroelectric plant, described the significance of positive experience in the public’s acceptance of additional wind projects.
“The biggest and best argument for Hull 2 was Hull 1. “» People couldn’t really dispute the good stuff it was doing,” Brown said. “These things are unfamiliar. If you’re in Holland, if you’re in Germany, if you’re in Spain, you’ve got no ‘de-unfamiliarizing’ to do. … But here, we do have that work to do.”
Still, since many factors go into a wind turbine’s potential impact on people who live nearby, two projects that may seem in many ways comparable may trigger very different effects.
Kenneth Kaliski, director of acoustics for Resource Systems Group Inc., said several factors impact the levels of sound produced by wind turbines, which consequently places crucial importance on a noise study for siting.
These include meteorological conditions, topography, strength of wind, the type of turbine, and more, he said. Even the way turbines that are sited in pairs or groups are positioned in relationship to each other affects the level of sound emitted.
Meanwhile, people’s tolerance for sounds – and whether they hear them at all at varying decibels and frequencies – differ, according to Renee Morel Callinan, an audiologist at Northeast Ear Nose and Throat.
There are the obvious variations people can have thanks to natural hearing loss, which can happen in different ways, at different times and at different rates, she said. And “even within ‘normal,’ we’re very individual.”
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