The ghosts of Waterloo, the absent residents who have fled their homes in rural South Australia to escape strange ailments they blame on wind turbines, have risen to haunt Big Wind.
In the face of mounting international evidence and continued industry denials, Waterloo will become the test site for a noise-monitoring program which may reverberate around the world.
Over two months, SA’s Environmental Protection Authority will continuously measure the lowest frequency noises from the Waterloo turbines. It will use its powers to force the wind company to co-operate by turning wind turbines on and off so there can be no dispute about background noise.
The new testing is considered to be a critical development in a long-running dispute over wind turbines that has split rural communities and frustrated an industry that sees itself as critical to Australia’s clean energy future.
A literature review on health impacts is due to be released next month by the National Health and Medical Research Council. But momentum continues to build for real research, and the number of complaints continues to grow.
Federal Liberal MP Dan Tehan says he has been “agnostic” about wind power. “My view on wind power was that it had the potential to create jobs and help drought-proof properties,” Tehan says. “I was also concerned about some of the things I had heard about health impacts. I guess I was a bit of a wait and see.”
Tehan has waited long enough. Three months after Australia’s biggest wind farm, the Macarthur development, began operations in Tehan’s Wannon electorate, he says “these concerns need to be taken seriously”.
“It is not just anti-climate change people doing this,” he says. “These are people who just want to live their lives and not deal with government of any form.”
Like Tehan, Mary Morris has been reluctantly drawn into the wind turbine noise debate. Morris says it was civic duty and a sense of justice that got her involved in the plight of Waterloo residents who claim they have been forced to leave their homes because of wind turbine noise. And it has been her determination that may have finally flushed out the SA EPA to do its job on wind.
Morris got involved when University of Adelaide masters student Frank Wang surveyed residents within a 5km radius of the Waterloo wind turbines. Seventy per cent of respondents claimed they had been negatively affected by the wind farm noise and more than 50 per cent said they had been very or moderately negatively affected.
When Wang’s leaked findings were not publicly released, Morris ran her own survey, which found 39 per cent of respondents reported sleep disturbance up to 5km from the wind turbines. At 10km away, 29 per cent of respondents reported sleep disturbance.
Morris sent her findings to the EPA but says she was told “Thanks, but this is not science.”
But she was not deterred. In a follow-up letter, Morris said: “The EPA’s lack of interest and action in relation to complaints from excessive wind turbine noise can only be explained by institutional bias or, perhaps, worse.
“In your letter you say that the EPA also does not have evidence that low-frequency sound/infrasound is present in the Waterloo wind farm area at high levels, or is associated with operation of the wind farm.
“The absence of that evidence is explained by the fact that the EPA has never bothered to gather it and has simply relied upon the untested assertions made by the acoustic consultants routinely engaged by the wind farm developers.”
Morris said the EPA had a statutory and common law duty to protect people unluckily situated too close to industrial wind farms, or any industrial noise source.
“I am aware of numerous groups of adversely affected rural people in SA and other states who have sought and obtained legal advice about instituting proceedings in nuisance and negligence against turbine hosts, developers, planning authorities and the EPA, seeking substantial damages for the loss of the use and enjoyment of their homes and properties,” she wrote. “The EPA is unlikely to avoid liability in damages by maintaining ‘a watching brief’ on the guidelines, as you put it.”
Following Morris’s letter, the EPA last month held a public meeting at which chief executive Campbell Gemmell announced a noise-testing program will take place at Waterloo; it will be one of the most rigorous undertaken anywhere in the world.
EPA science and assessment director Peter Dolan says monitoring will start in April and continue uninterrupted for two months.
The EPA will use its powers to compel the wind turbine operator to turn its turbines on and off so that background noise can be accurately measured. And it will use very sensitive, and expensive, equipment to measure sound frequencies as low as 0.25 hertz.
Dolan is quick to point out the EPA will not make any judgment on whether wind turbines cause health problems. This will be left to the National Health and Medical Research Council, which is due to release another review of published literature next month.
But the Waterloo tests will provide information on what is really going on acoustically.
“Something is happening and we are trying our best to figure out what it is,” Dolan says. “I certainly believe people are affected by something.
“There are some theories around that it is not infrasound but low-frequency noise, but something is affecting people for certain. They are not making it up.”
Wind farm opponents in Australia believe the EPA may be able to find some clues in a recent study conducted at the Shirley wind farm in Wisconsin in the US.
Following complaints similar to those in Waterloo, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission engaged four acoustic consulting firms to conduct a joint study.
Two of the firms had close links to wind farm developers, one worked for anti-wind farm groups and the fourth worked for both.
“The four investigating firms are of the opinion that enough evidence and hypotheses have been given herein to classify LFN and infrasound as a serious issue, possibly affecting the future of the industry,” the joint study concluded.
“It should be addressed beyond the present practice of showing that wind turbine levels are magnitudes below the threshold of hearing at low frequencies.”
The acoustic companies highlighted 1986 research by the US Navy, which found physical vibration of pilots in flight simulators induced motion sickness.
The Shirley report also challenged the theory that the health impacts are psychosomatic, or a so-called “nocebo” effect.
“The fact that residents largely report wind turbines as inaudible, and the reported effects on a baby, seem to rule out the illness being caused by extreme annoyance, as some have suggested,” the report says. “The lack of change with orientation of the turbine with respect to the house and the lack of change with position in the house suggest that we are dealing with very low frequencies.”
The wind industry has avoided the Shirley report and sought to downplay the significance of the new EPA research in Australia.
Wind industry lobby group the Clean Energy Council highlighted another EPA-commissioned study which found that the level of infrasound from wind turbines was not significant.
“There are nearly 200,000 wind turbines all over the world, many of them close to people’s houses,” CEC policy director Russell Marsh says. “Multiple scientific, thorough, peer-reviewed studies on wind farm noise have found that infrasound from wind farms is not an issue, and a recent Senate committee inquiry agreed.”
Marsh says a recent EPA-commissioned report by Resonate Acoustic “provided some much-needed clarity in a debate that has often been clouded by misinformation”. But Dolan says the Resonate Acoustic work is “only part of the puzzle” and did not measure sound at Waterloo.
Acoustic expert Steven Cooper says the Resonate research has several obvious shortcomings.
Resonate’s use of the dBG (infrasonic weighting) range to measure the wind turbine noise is “inappropriate and misleading”, he says. And the use of a 10-second average removed the acoustic signature of the turbines.
Cooper says the correct method of describing turbine infrasound is the linear (unweighted) level over the infrasound region of 0.8 Hz to 20 Hz.
This information will be captured in the EPA’s proposed long-term monitoring.
Dolan says the testing will be conducted in-house and the results will be made public.
Wind industry leader Vestas has been keen that low-frequency noise be left out of the wind turbine monitoring equation.
In its submission to a NSW inquiry into wind industry regulation, Vestas says existing testing regimes are “not designed to deal with frequencies at the low end of the audible spectrum” because noise emissions in this band are not considered to affect the surrounding environment.
Vestas therefore suggested the requirement to measure low-frequency noise be removed from the NSW draft guidelines.