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Shoving wind power in people’s faces

Out of the blue last November, Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) began the (non-union labour) construction of an industrial wind turbine on the grounds of its Family Education Centre, a facility designed to “encourage…people …to discuss their problems and debate the major issues of the times.”

Despite all the places CAW could have located the mammoth structure, it picked Port Elgin, “considered – one of the leading recreational playgrounds in Ontario” for an industrial wind turbine. CAW’s vacant 128-acre property nearby was deemed too environmentally sensitive. Besides, the land had just been subdivided and its lots stood to rake in $2 million. The FEC’s densely-populated neighbourhood didn’t have such sensitivities.

The turbine’s proposed location was so beautiful, it posed a problem: the land’s picturesque, clean beach and nature trails led to its classification as a tourist and recreational community. Therefore, the turbine’s noise emission would exceed legislated standards. Not easily deterred, CAW found a quick fix: Classify the small tourist community as “urban” on the turbine application since acceptable noise emission levels are higher. No one will notice. The scheme worked, and the Ministry of Education (MOE) approved it. Voila.

Residents angrily protested that CAW hadn’t allowed democratic participation in this huge decision that affected the community’s health, safety, environment, property values, tax base, and their main source of revenue: tourism. The community complained that CAW hadn’t been open and honest. Yet, CAW President, Ken Lewenza, denied this allegation. “We have made a concerted effort to engage and inform the community about our planned construction of the windmill.”

He explained that CAW distributed leaflets to less than half the community in 2004, and held an open house in 2005. Ken went on to say that anyone could have attended the Ontario Municipal Board hearings if they’d wanted. He also added there were postings to the Ontario Environmental Registry. People just needed to look there. Ken continued, “with sincere intentions…for open and honest dialogue with the community…in the spirit of neighborliness…” CAW will “establish a local committee that will fully monitor the turbine’s operation.” And, he added, “This offer goes far beyond any piece of provincial legislation that currently exists.”

No doubt current legislation was on Ken’s mind. Back in 2009, CAW had obtained its 800kw turbine approval a mere months before provincial 550m setback legislation was enacted. A little MOE grandfathering fixed the problem and the turbine moved ahead. Now, two years later, using that outdated approval certificate, CAW was being accused of ignoring current provincial legislation designed to protect health and safety. The community claimed that CAW’s turbine (located only 210m from the nearest home) was, in effect, illegal. To make matters worse, the Ontario Environmental Tribunal had just ruled that “the debate was not one about whether wind turbines can cause harm to humans. The evidence…demonstrates that they can, if…placed too close to residents.”

Faced with massive community protest and the optics of illegality, Ken wrote to the local paper announcing that CAW had “decided to reduce the power output of the turbine to 500kw, a significant drop from its 800kw…(to) help ensure any noise emitted from the turbine stays at a reasonable level.” (Ken didn’t count on a CAW executive letting it slip soon after that “de-rating our turbine to 500kw enabled us to move our project to completion…and allowed us to expedite our connection to the provincial power grid.”)

The community soon learned that the noise emission reduction meant CAW now escaped the 550m provincial setback legislation altogether. It didn’t seem to matter that CAW’s Noise Study for MOE showed that “in order to meet the ‘worse case’ limit, the turbine will need to be operated at below 400kw.” CAW’s 800kw turbine, masquerading as 500kw–a wolf in sheep’s clothing–now officially ‘met’ all current provincial regulations. CAW was in the driver’s seat–and would self-monitor noise levels–like a motorist responsible for his own breathalyzer. Voila, again.

In short order, CAW had dealt with pesky legislation but it still had an annoying problem: community outrage. What about our health and safety? Some 100 families were in the 550m risk zone, not to mention all the CAW employees, and kids in its on-site daycare. “We will do everything in our power to eliminate all negative health impacts,” Ken assured. What about infrasound, audible noise, and shadow flicker? What about ice-throw, fires, and blade disengagement? We’re too close! “If we are wrong,” Ken replied, “and our windmill causes serious problems…then we will work diligently to make the necessary adjustment.” No need for CAW to be proactive, when it could be reactive.

Then a radio interview gave the community some hope. On GoldHawk, CAW confirmed its commitment to Town Council–if the turbine causes public harm, CAW would shut down its revenue-generating machine. Skeptical, the community posed the question: Will CAW agree to such a ‘contract’ that puts our health and safety first? Ken’s response was immediate. CAW “would not sign a contract other than committing to environmental obligations legislated by law.”

“CAW have met all of the provincial requirements,” Ken stated. End of story.