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Health board will conduct new survey of turbine neighbors

Falmouth Board of Health decided last night to go forward with a confidential survey of all the residents within earshot of the wind turbines in Falmouth, despite objections of some members who initially said they have already gathered enough information.

The survey will solicit information from people who have not yet come forward with complaints about health effects of wind turbines and also people who may not be affected by the turbines. Board members decided that to truly understand the prevalence of health effects of turbines, they must create a confidential survey of all the residents nearby the turbines, not just the residents who have already come forward.

The board of health has heard complaints from about 50 residents since the first of three 398 foot high wind turbines in Falmouth started turning in 2010. Those neighbors have attended dozens of meetings about the wind turbines, but none were there for the discussion last night.

Board members were initially split on whether the survey was a good idea, until Chairman Gail A. Harkness convinced them that the survey would allow them to gather more information about people’s self-reported symptoms for analysis. Initially, board member George Heufelder said a survey would just gather more data but not enough to make conclusions. “We’ll be right back here, but with a lot more information,” he said. The board of health has already collected comments through an online complaint form, but the results of that form are not confidential. Some residents have not come forward because Dr. Harkness said a confidential survey could be designed to gather more specific information about health effects and targeted to all the residents.

Earlier this year, the board asked the state to study the health impacts on residents, but associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Suzanne K. Condon responded in a letter two weeks ago that a health study would take at least two or three years and would not produce any definitive conclusions. “Since you hope to address resident concerns in a timely manner, conducting such an epidemiologic study does not seem realistic,” she wrote to the board. Ms. Condon suggested creating the online survey, which could be kept confidential under a provision of the Massachusetts Public Records Law.

That response was less than Mr. Heufelder had hoped for. “She’s kind of left us hanging here,” he said. Board member Stephen D. Rafferty said the state put the ball back in the board of health’s court. “They’ve said; You’re the board of health, make a decision,” he said. Most of the health problems reported by neighbors of the turbines are related to sleep disturbances, he said. “Should the board do something about it?” he asked.

Mr. Rafferty passed out a map of the three turbines clustered in the Blacksmith Shop Road area, with the residents who have responded about the turbines highlighted within a half-mile radius. The map showed that there have not been comments from the majority of homes inside the three circles.

Dr. Harkness said the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has agreed to help design the survey form and analyze the data gathered through the survey. Mr. Heufelder remained skeptical about the need for a survey. “What would it be that we would get from this?” he asked. “What would it take to turn your head?” He said if the survey showed that everyone in the half-mile radius had considered suicide, he would say it was time to make a decision.

The survey would give the board answers about how many people are experiencing symptoms like sleep disturbances and headaches, argued Dr. Harkness. “You’re going to get the true prevalence of symptoms,” she said.

Board member John B. Waterbury said the data and studies of wind turbines throughout the world are not conclusive. “It is unbelievably conflicting,” he said. More surveys would just create more conflicting data, he said. Mr. Heufelder agreed that the results will not be conclusive. “You’re anticipating what the results will be and you shouldn’t do that,” Dr. Harkness said. Dr. Waterbury said the town has already initiated its own wind turbine group, with representatives from all sides, which is attempting to solve the problem.

Board member Jared V. Goldstone was also skeptical that a survey would tell them anything new. “It isn’t going to give any more information,” he said. “We’ve already seen the extremes.” The residents with the worst health effects have already come forward, and residents who are not bothered have not come forward, he said. Dr. Goldstone pointed out that the town has already shut down the two turbines at the wastewater treatment plant from 7 PM to 7 AM every night. “As soon as the Town of Falmouth shut down the turbines, the complaints disappeared,” he said. Almost all the complaints are now about the privately-owned Notus Clean Energy turbine in Falmouth Technology Park, he said.

But Dr. Harkness made one more pitch to convince the other board members. “I see that there is information we haven’t gathered yet,” Dr. Harkness said. She said for the first time the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has offered to help with a confidential survey of all the neighbors within earshot of the turbines. The state has also offered to help analyze the data. For those reasons, Dr. Harkness said, the board of health should go forward with the new confidential survey of residents. The other board members finally agreed, and voted unanimously, although not with much enthusiasm. “That was one of the most reluctant votes I’ve ever heard,” Dr. Harkness said. “Some of us are not very enthusiastic,” Dr. Waterbury said.

The board will work to design the new survey and decide how it will be distributed at its next meeting on September 24.