Massachusetts residents insistent that the drone, flicker and vibration of land-based wind turbines can shatter the health of nearby communities invoked Tuesday the onset of the United States’ HIV/AIDS epidemic to reject a recent report debunking their claims.
Although an independent report commissioned by the Patrick administration concluded last month that wind turbines present little more than an “annoyance” to residents and that limited evidence exists to support claims of devastating health impacts, Falmouth and western Massachusetts residents argued that the report was biased, crafted in secret and based on “cherry-picked” information that ignored the real-world impact of turbines.
“By ignoring those of us in Falmouth and excluding most of our supporting literature and testimonials, this so-called health study has done a great injustice to the citizens of this commonwealth,” said Neil Andersen, a Cape resident, at a State House hearing held by the Department of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Protection intended to gather public feedback on the new report.
Eleanor Tillinghast, a longtime critic of the Patrick administration’s efforts to proliferate land-based wind turbines, said the Patrick administration’s report recalled public health officials’ slow realization about the scale of the AIDS epidemic, as well as on tobacco and asbestos issues around the county.
“When I read the report, I saw many of the same patterns that we saw early on with those issues where the information is cherry-picked, despite tremendous amounts of information,” she said. “The people who are suffering are dismissed as having annoyance … The patterns are the same and the outcomes are the same.”
Critics of turbines, however, were matched by proponents of renewable energy, one of whom compared the low drone of a wind turbine to “the ocean lapping gently against the waves.” Advocates for expanding wind energy in Massachusetts contended that the most ardent critics of turbines were stalling progress at the expense of residents in communities like Somerset, where coal-fired power plants cause air pollution and have demonstrably harmed residents’ health.
“While we are sensitive to the concerns of those who are adversely impacted, controversial wind projects in Massachusetts represent the exception and not the rule,” said Stephan Wollenburg, marketing and program manager at the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance. “The projects we have worked with have proven to be good neighbors. This report has confirmed what common sense already tells us. Turbines create sound. If it’s too loud, it can annoy people … still, the vast majority of turbines don’t have these impacts.”
The widely divergent testimony underscored a challenge for state officials as they weigh whether to embrace the panel report and ways to achieve Gov. Deval Patrick’s goal of generating 500 megawatts of wind energy per year by 2020.
“We have not made up our mind,” emphasized Ken Kimmell, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.
The wind turbine impact study was compiled by a panel that included Jeffrey Ellenbogen, Massachusetts General Hospital’s sleep medicine division chief; Sheryl Grace, a Boston University mechanical engineering professor; Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a Boston University professor of environmental health; James Manwell, a UMass-Amherst wind energy expert; Dora Anne Mills, a public health expert with the University of New England; Kimberly Sullivan, a Boston University environmental health professor; and Marc Weisskopf, a neuroscientist and epidemiology expert from Harvard University.
DEP and DPH officials emphasized that the Patrick administration had no role in contributing to the report and said panelists were vetted to ensure they had no bias for or against wind energy.
Backers of renewable energy have argued that Massachusetts has vast wind resources that could diminish the state’s reliance on imported oil and dirtier forms of energy production. Although most of that potential is concentrated offshore, Patrick administration officials have long sought policies to ease the construction of land-based wind turbines, in part by streamlining the permitting process for developers.
A plan to do so nearly landed on Patrick’s desk in 2010 but failed as the clock expired on legislative business and campaign season began. Since then, Senate President Therese Murray has indicated she has soured on the comprehensive wind energy siting proposal, and Patrick’s top energy adviser, Richard Sullivan, has suggested the administration will scale back is efforts this year, seeking only to establish siting standards for land-based turbines.
The hearing drew interest from Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind, a 130-turbine offshore wind project slated for construction in Nantucket Sound. Gordon’s efforts have been frustrated for years by opponents who have argued that the project will impact their views of the storied water body, present a danger to wildlife and planes, and drive up energy costs. Cape Wind is seeking a buyer for half of its potential energy generation, and Gordon has said he hopes to begin construction by next year.
“I got into this business because I wanted to actually help improve the environment and health. I don’t believe that wind energy is a threat to health,” he said. “I empathize with Mr. Anderson and Ms. Elder’s concerns, but I want to say that the only threat that wind energy poses is a threat to the bottom line of fossil fuel generators and coal and oil purveyors. Please do not be exploited by special interests that would fund efforts to block the administration’s renewable energy goals and carbon emission reduction goals. That would actually have the greatest impact on the health of commonwealth citizens.”
Kathryn Elder, a Falmouth resident who said she supports renewable energy and environmental protection, said her life has been “turned upside-down by a turbine that has been sited too close to my house.”
“It is not my perception. It is not my opinion, and it is certainly not annoyance that wakes me up repeatedly at night,” she said.
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