WOLFE ISLAND – When the blades of 86 wind turbines started turning on Wolfe Island three years ago, they did more than generate green energy and alter the rural island’s landscape – they severed some lifelong relationships between those opposed to the turbines and those in support.
“It’s a great divide and it’s a chasm that doesn’t close quickly. It’s one of the greatest losses. My husband has been here all his life … People who have been lifelong friends of my husband don’t speak and cross the road if they see you coming. That silly stuff that happens in a small town,” said Gail Kenney, who has lived on Wolfe Island for more than 40 years.
She’s been called a radical, wire-cutter, and NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) for her anti-turbine stance.
Metroland Media Group’s Durham Region Division’s Jennifer O’Meara travelled to the small Lake Ontario island off the coast of Kingston where the second largest wind farm in Canada is operating.
It’s a farm community where it’s hard to find anyone who is not touched by the green energy development – either hosting a turbine, affiliated with someone hosting turbines or living next to turbines.
Ken White’s family has lived on Wolfe Island for five generations. He has four turbines on the land he raises cattle on.
“I thought it was a good idea from the start. Wind has been around for generations and generations. Nothing is freer than wind,” said Mr. White. “There are always complaints but some people will complain no matter what.”
Mayor Dennis Doyle said the Frontenac Islands council (which includes Wolfe Island) has decided not take a position on the wind turbines. He was elected after the approval was given for the wind farm and was there to negotiate the details of the deal.
“We went through a lot of difficulties. It did cause a lot of strife in the community. A lot of bad feelings. It does that wherever it goes in,” said Mayor Doyle.
The Wolfe Island wind farm was approved before the provincial Green Energy Act, which took control of these projects out of the hands of municipalities. There was no 550-metre setback rule. The closest turbine is 450 metres from a home.
The Township, like many municipalities, was struggling for tax revenue and that’s really what drove the initiative, explained Mayor Doyle. Wolfe Island gets $640,000 a year from the company in an amenities agreement. The municipality was able to put in a hockey rink with donated labour from the turbine construction crews.
Non-farming jobs are hard to come by on Wolfe Island. There was once a Kraft cheese plant, but it closed in 2000. The turbines brought 400 construction jobs and 12 permanent jobs, plus some maintenance work. It’s at least 12 fewer people taking the ferry into Kingston each morning for work.
“It is a large benefit to Wolfe Island. I worked construction for over 25 years and had to take the ferry and drive all over Ontario. This job came up and I jumped on it,” said Bill Joy, lead wind technician for Transalta Wolfe Island wind facility.
Others on Wolfe Island feel there has been too high a cost for the wind turbines.
Gail and Ed Kenney said years later they still have sleep disturbances and ringing in their ears and they suspect low-frequency vibration from the turbines is to blame.
“We’ve had four to six years of anger because of social injustice. Because it hasn’t been righted or mitigated in any way, we continue to live with this. If you live with the amount of anger we’ve lived with at this point for four to six years, there’s no doubt health is impacted,” said Ms. Kenney, who chaired an anti-turbine group called Wolfe Island Residents for the Environment, which has since folded.
There is no clear consensus on whether wind turbines cause adverse health impacts. Scientific studies have found no direct impacts but world wide, neighbours of turbines complain of similar symptoms.
Mayor Doyle said he hopes an upcoming federal health study on the issue will put the concerns to rest – one way or another – so Wolfe Island can move forward together.
“Some people were so concerned and when it became obvious it was going ahead no matter what … There is some (community) healing that will never happen in this generation,” said Mayor Doyle. “Some families were broken up over it. There’s a divide in the community.”
Issues with the Wolfe Island wind farm
Gail and Ed Kenney said the wind farm has lowered property values in the area and several properties have been on the market for three or four years without selling.
Ken White said property values didn’t go down on Wolfe Island, and thinks the extra income from the turbines would be a selling feature for someone interested in buying a farm.
“Even those who sold during the construction, it sold in four or five days and they got their asking price.”
Mayor Dennis Doyle said it’s still too soon to tell if there is an impact on property values. Land doesn’t change hands very often on the small island, where farms are in the same family for generations.
Light up the night
Mayor Dennis Doyle said the main ongoing complaint he gets from residents is about the blinking red lights on the top of the turbines to warn off low-flying airplanes. He said more modern turbines can have lights that activate only when an aircraft is approaching, but Transport Canada said the lights had to stay.
“Our friends in Kingston refer to us now as the red light district,” said Mayor Doyle.
Wolfe Island has a high number of waterfowl that gather offshore during the spring migration and supports important landbird populations, including wintering raptors and tree swallows. BirdLife International considers the island an important bird area.
Since the wind turbines became operational, third party surveyors run a monitoring program to see what impact the turbines are having on the birds and bats.
In 2010, 6.5 birds were killed per wind turbine on Wolfe Island. From Jan. 1 to June 30, 2011, there were 31 bird carcasses (and seven bat carcasses) found near the turbines, which translates to 1.72 birds per turbine.
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