A series of questions arose this week after the Falmouth Board of Health on Monday made a decision to hold a public hearing on the health effects of wind turbines, which could result in an emergency shutdown of the three largest wind turbines in Falmouth.
Among the questions were whether the board of health members are liable for the health impacts of wind turbines, if they can shut down a privately owned turbine, if they acted appropriately in scheduling the hearing, and if evidence presented at the meeting on Monday was accurate.
The meeting is scheduled for Thursday, May 24, at 7 PM at Falmouth Town Hall. Residents are invited to speak about health effects from the wind turbines. Presentations will be limited to three minutes each, along with a written summary of the remarks. Written testimony from residents will be accepted until May 31 at the health department at town hall.
At the board’s meeting on Monday, Kathie C. Mount of Blacksmith Shop Road read into the record a letter by her husband, Day O. Mount, stating that the board of health is “on the hook” for the health problems caused by the turbines. “If the board of health would ever want to get off the hook, all the board of health would have to do would be to order that all three industrial turbines be turned off, pending receipt of written assurance from the state that there are no health risks,” she said.
But Falmouth Town Counsel Frank K. Duffy Jr. said yesterday that members are not legally liable for decisions they make on a board. “Generally speaking, public officials are not liable for any decision they make for which they have discretion,” said Mr. Duffy.
However, the board of health does have the power to shut down the turbines if it decides the machines are causing health problems, he said. “The board of health has extensive powers to make regulations with respect to the public health,” Mr. Duffy said.
To pass a new health regulation, the board must vote on the regulation and then publish it in a local newspaper, said Falmouth Health Agent David W. Carignan. The board can pass any regulation as long as it is reasonable, he said. Mr. Duffy said he and Mr. Carignan plan to meet to discuss the upcoming hearing.
Board of health member Stephen D. Rafferty said the board has heard residents complain about health effects for two years, and had received no guidance from state officials, so they decided it was time to take action.
Chairman Gail A. Harkness of the board of health said the turbines that might be regulated by an emergency shutdown are the two town-owned turbines at the wastewater treatment facility, and the Notus Clean Energy turbine in Falmouth Technology Park. All the machines are Vestas 1.65-megawatt models.
Daniel H. Webb, the owner of the Notus turbine, would be most financially impacted by an emergency order to shut down the turbines, but did not disagree that the board of health has the authority to issue a health regulation. “The board of health has jurisdiction over public health issues,” he said. “I’m not an expert, but I understand they do have the authority to make rulings in emergency situations to protect the public health—if indeed there is a public health risk,” he said.
Mr. Webb said his office is 600 feet from his turbine and he has experienced no negative health effects. “I would also say I’m sure they are aware of the proven health benefits of renewable energy, which reduces pollution from fossil fuels,” he said.
Ms. Harkness and board member George Heufelder said one of the reasons that the board decided to call for the public hearing was the lack of action by the Falmouth Board of Selectmen on the wind turbine issue. Around the same time that the board of health scheduled the public hearing, selectmen voted to turn off the two town-owned wind turbines from 7 PM to 7 AM every night, and go forward with a consensus-building process that started last month. Board of health members said they did not know the selectmen were discussing wind turbines during their meeting.
Chairman of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen Mary (Pat) Flynn said she, too, did not know that the board of health would discuss turbines at its meeting. “We didn’t know they were going to vote to hold a public hearing,” said Ms. Flynn. “If they want to take on this public hearing, then that’s within their rights.”
Ms. Flynn said the situation reminded her of a similar scenario at a board of selectmen meeting in February last year. At that meeting, neighbors confronted selectmen about their quality of life with the turbines and selectmen voted to curtail the operation of Wind 1. That, in retrospect, was a bad decision, Ms. Flynn said. “I do think in the late evenings when a board was pressured like we were back in February, I think you make a bad decision,” she said. “That was a quarter to 12 at night. That is not the time to make a reasonable decision.”
One resident criticized the board of health for the actions on Monday. Kathleen R. Driscoll of Antlers Shore Drive, Waquoit, works at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy near the 660-kilo- watt turbine, and said no one has ever complained of negative health effects related to that turbine.
She questioned whether the Falmouth Board of Health acted appropriately when scheduling the meeting, because a discussion of wind turbines was not on the agenda. Ms. Driscoll wrote an e-mail to Town Manager Julian M. Suso asking him to publicly rebuke the board of health for its actions. “Our town boards and committees cannot act on emotion and vitriol,” Ms. Driscoll wrote. “The board of health should be sanctioned for their activities on May 7 and have their purview of the wind turbines reviewed,” she wrote.
“If the board of health cannot stay up to date on the actions of other departments, such as the board of selectmen’s curtailment procedures, as it relates to the wind turbines, then they should not be making stop action decisions. Too many people in the town, including town employees, have worked hard to determine real, practical and balanced solutions to the operation of the wind turbines,” she wrote.
Mr. Suso said in a phone interview on Wednesday that he has no intention of criticizing the board of health or challenging its authority. “I’m not as familiar with all that they have been involved in, but I respect their authority and look forward to working with them,” he said.
Holding a public hearing on health issues is part of the board of health’s authority, he said. “I don’t dispute it and I don’t challenge it. It is a distinguished board,” he said.
Asked if the selectmen and the board of health could both go forward with the public health hearing and the consensus-building process at the same time, Mr. Suso said, “We’re breaking some new ground here. The best I can say on that one is we will see.”
Mr. Suso said he was thankful that the board of selectmen had shown leadership by going forward with the consensus-building process and added that the topic of the wind turbines has been on the selectmen’s agenda two weeks in a row.
Another controversial topic from the board of health meeting came when J. Malcolm Donald of Ambleside Drive said a resident who lives near the turbines had attempted suicide. Ms. Harkness said that was a key moment for her in her decision to hold a hearing about the health impacts of the turbines.
Ms. Driscoll in her e-mail to Mr. Suso also questioned whether the suicide attempt actually happened. “I think it is egregious of the board of health to accept such a comment as fact and act on it without corroboration along with the assumption that the attempted suicide directly relates to the operation of wind turbines,” she wrote.
Falmouth Police Chief Anthony J. Riello said he had been asked by Mr. Suso three weeks ago to investigate the claim that someone who lives near the turbines had attempted suicide. He said he found no evidence that there had been a suicide attempt in the police logs or in Falmouth Hospital records.
“We haven’t had any suicides. There were some e-mails, but there were no suicides and no attempted suicides. Zero,” Chief Riello said. “We did check the logs shortly after Town Meeting, and we did check at Falmouth Hospital, just to make sure.”
But Mr. Donald said there is no doubt in his mind that a wind turbine neighbor attempted suicide. “What I do know is that this per- son attempted suicide. It is common knowledge by a number of neighbors surrounding the three wind turbines,” he wrote in an e-mail. “This is a health issue related to the turbines. I believed and do believe it is information of importance to the board of health in its consideration of all the health issues related to the wind turbines.”
Mr. Donald said he would not release the details of the person’s suicide attempt unless that person wants to come forward. “Is it necessary to wait until someone successfully commits suicide until something is done?” he wrote.
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