FALMOUTH – When Mark Cool started getting pressure headaches while gardening on his two woodland acres, he thought he might have a brain tumor.
A doctor suggested allergies, but medication didn’t work, Cool said. Then, his wife and neighbors complained of lost sleep, headaches and tinnitus.
“It wasn’t until that time that I really started saying, ‘Man, the only thing different in the neighborhood … (is) the wind turbine,'” Cool said recently.
Falmouth’s Wind 1 began spinning at the town’s wastewater treatment facility on Blacksmith Shop Road April 6, 2010. A second turbine, Wind 2, started up two years later.
Since then, neighbors have made persistent and vigorous demands to scrap the $10.58 million municipal project. The issue has fractured the town. Selectmen placed an article on Tuesday’s special town meeting warrant to borrow nearly $14 million to decommission and remove the turbines.
During the project’s planning stages, however, few would have predicted turbines would not only ignite furious controversy in Falmouth, but also influence decisions throughout the state.
‘Why haven’t we done this?’
In 2002, Falmouth’s Energy Committee conducted a first-of-its-kind energy inventory for the town. Aside from the high school, the wastewater treatment plant was the largest energy consumer in town, Energy Committee Chairman Megan Amsler said. And topography showed the plant was one of the highest points in town.
“All that stuff made it kind of seem like, ‘Huh, this might be a good place to explore wind,'” Amsler said in recent interview.
In 2004, the town asked the University of Massachusetts Amherst Wind Energy Center to install an anemometer at the wastewater treatment plant to measure wind speeds.
That same year, the energy committee surveyed 29 wastewater plant neighbors living as close as 1,500 feet from the proposed turbine site. Only one of seven responses opposed the turbines. The committee also sponsored bus trips to Hull to show residents the 660-kilowatt turbines there, Amsler said.
Assistant Town Manager Heather Harper was assigned to manage the project in 2005 after the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative – now the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center – commissioned a financial analysis and feasibility study. The collaborative determined the wastewater treatment plant was suitable and safe for a 1.5-megawatt to 2.5-megawatt turbine.
“If you were there at the time, the attitude was, ‘Why haven’t we done this yet?'” Harper said.
Town meeting members unanimously voted to install, operate and finance wind-energy facilities at the plant during a special town meeting in April 2007. Between then and 2009, town meeting members supported six other warrant articles to pay for the project.
The trips to Hull were for Falmouth residents to see that town’s 660-kilowatt turbines, the only ones then nearby, Amsler said. But Vestas, the manufacturer, had stopped making that model by the time Falmouth began looking,
“Some of the misinformation out there is like, ‘Oh, the town was duped, you know. We were supposed to put up the 660,'” said Amsler.
Not so, she said. Manufacturers in the booming wind market were generally uninterested in small-scale projects like Falmouth’s, she said. They favored multi-turbine projects, making it difficult to buy just one or two.
But after a project in Orleans hit a dead end, the Renewable Energy Trust released one of those 1.65-megawatt turbines to Falmouth. Wind 1 officially started spinning April 6, 2010. Wind 2 was delivered eight months later.
Living in the basement
Almost as soon as Wind 1 started, there were complaints.
After several neighbors said they endured ringing in their ears, sleepless nights and a host of other symptoms, Annie Cool, Mark’s wife, hosted a meeting of about 12 turbine abutters.
“At the beginning, there was no getting away from it because it was running all the time,” she said last month. “Mark had pretty much taken up residence in the basement.”
At a conference on the alleged ill-effects of wind turbines held in Ontario in 2010, Barry Funfar, one of Wind 1’s abutters, met Nina Pierpont, who provided more ammunition for the neighbors’ fight.
Pierpont, a pediatrician and anti-wind advocate, coined the term “wind turbine syndrome” in her 2009 book, “Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment.”
She has said the Falmouth neighbors suffer from the syndrome she says causes tinnitus, headaches and sleep loss, among other problems.
But the health claims are difficult to prove or disprove, and are not backed by science, according to Tony Ellis, staff engineer and research fellow with the UMass Amherst Wind Energy Center.
“It’s kind of hard to say that it isn’t (turbines) now that they’ve invented a syndrome,” Ellis said. “Science is a bad word, math is a bad word, they have their opinion, and they’re not going to be dissuaded by reality.”
Regardless of the accuracy of Pierpont’s diagnosis, town officials met with neighbors soon after complaints began in 2010.
Town officials also set up an email address to log the complaints. They agreed to shut off the turbines when wind reached speeds greater than 22 mph, and they commissioned Harris Miller Miller & Hanson Inc., Burlington noise and vibration consultants, to conduct a sound study of the area in the summer of 2010.
“I think the tenor of the neighborhood after the kickoff meeting was, ‘Man, the town’s serious about finding out what the hell’s going on here,'” Cool said.
But the official attitude changed in September 2010 after the study found Wind 1 did not violate the state Department of Environmental Protection’s noise guidelines, Cool said.
“The town just basically shrugged their shoulders and said, “‘We rest our case,'” he said.
So neighbors and their advocates spoke out at selectmen’s meetings and pretty much anywhere they could air their grievances in public.
The neighbors’ first major victory came at the fall town meeting in 2011. Funfar placed a nonbinding article on the warrant to shut down Wind 1 and delay operation of Wind 2 until mitigation could be fully explored.
Before the article reached the town meeting floor, selectmen reached a compromise with him. They agreed to shut off Wind 1 until spring town meeting, but to start up Wind 2 as soon as possible. The town agreed to log comments for two months.
The barrage of complaints continued. In May 2012, the town agreed to shut down the turbines from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Barely a week later, a DEP sound study determined the turbines exceeded the state nighttime noise threshold by about 2 decibels.
“We started winning the minds and hearts of town meeting,” said Cool. “I think it was recognized by the selectmen that was what was actually taking place, too.”
Amsler does not deny the neighbors’ symptoms. But their boisterous, sometimes personal confrontations amount to bullying, she has said.
“There were a lot of messages that came through the Internet, and I had some incidences in person,” Amsler said. “I don’t like to go to the meetings because of it.”
‘Murphy’s Law played out’
In the spring of 2012, the town formed the Wind Turbine Options Analysis Process to recommend turbine mitigation options to selectmen.
The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center provided $388,000 for professional support.
The committee met 25 times over eight months and finally recommended three options: Run the turbines; curtail turbine operation; or replace the turbines with solar panels.
Selectmen responded with the proposal to borrow about $14 million to decommission and remove the turbines. If town meeting members approve, the question of whether to remove the turbines will appear on the town election ballot May 21. Even if the funding measure fails, selectmen say they will still put the turbine removal question on the ballot.
This week, state officials told the town there would be no forgiveness for about $1 million in prepaid renewable energy credits and nearly $5 million in stimulus grants used for the turbines.
“This is something that has polarized the community. It was a situation in which Murphy’s Law played out,” said Selectman Kevin Murphy, chairman of the board, with no pun intended.
Money aside, Harper fears that a vote to take down the turbines will set a precedent for the town to nix any municipal project because one group of residents is unhappy.
Removing the turbines could also have a chilling effect for wind projects in other communities, said Ellis. Groups such as Windwise Massachusetts and industrialwind.org are now organized forces against wind projects.
Opponents to a wind turbine in Kingston referenced Falmouth’s abatements in their efforts, said Kingston’s Acting Town Administrator Nancy Howlett. Opponents in Fairhaven invited Falmouth residents to public meetings to testify, said Jeffrey Osuch, Fairhaven’s executive secretary.
But the suffering Falmouth residents endure in their own homes requires the turbines’ removal, Cool said.
The problem is not with wind turbines, he said, but those particular turbines. Neighbors are not anti-turbine, but “pro-neighborhood,” he said.
“We’re not anti-wind, because had they put up that 660, I would have been, and I think I still would be, all for it,” he said.