CHARLESTOWN — It’s not always the noise you hear that damages your ears. The noise you don’t hear can be more harmful, wind turbine opponents were told Wednesday night.
Harold Vincent, an associate research professor in the ocean engineering department at the University of Rhode Island, told an audience of about 75 residents at Cross’ Mills Public Library that infrasonic noise — the low-frequency sound emanating from structures like the two wind turbines proposed for a nearby site across Route 1 — can create health problems that go beyond hearing difficulties.
“People say what you can’t sense can’t hurt you. You can’t sense carbon monoxide, but you know what the effects are,” he said.
Virtually all of his listeners were opponents of the Whalerock Renewable Energy LLC turbine plan, which is scheduled to receive a hearing from the Zoning Board of Review on May 21. Whalerock is seeking a special use permit to allow construction. Lawsuits brought by the town and abutting property owners against local developer Larry LeBlanc, who proposed the energy project, were dismissed in Rhode Island Superior Court last month.
The proposal was submitted in 2009, before the Town Council approved a moratorium on alternative energy projects. LeBlanc’s previous plan to build affordable housing on the property, an 81-acre site between King’s Factory Road and East Quail Run, ran aground against considerable opposition.
The Coalition to Stop Industrial Sized Wind Turbines was the host of Wednesday’s talk. It was the second meeting in two months of opponents of the proposed structures, which would be 262 feet tall with 171-foot blades. Last month the group heard from Neil Andersen of Falmouth, Mass., who lives near two large wind turbines.
Vincent, who is working with the state Office of Energy Resources to create site guidelines governing wind turbines, said low-frequency sound in intense enough to put pressure on ears.
“Low-level infrasound can create changes in the ear that cause vertigo,” he said, citing a recent study on wind turbines by Alec Salt, a professor of otolaryngology at Washington University in St. Louis. Salt cited four phenomena associated with wind turbines, each with specific symptoms:
V Amplified modulation, or pulsation, of hard sounds, which can lead to feelings of pulsation, annoyance, or stress.
V Stimulation of subconscious pathways, which can disturb sleep patterns and create chronic sleep deprivation, blood pressure elevation and memory dysfunction.
V Endolymphatic hydrops, or fluid filling compartments of the ear. This can cause unsteadiness, disequilibrium, vertigo, nausea, a seasick feeling, tinnitus, and a sensation of pressure or fullness in the ear.
V Possible presbycusis, or acceleration of age-related hearing loss..
Vincent said a visit to the North Kingstown residential area where one of the state’s 14 turbines was recently constructed found no outward noise problems aside from nearby railroad tracks and commercial development.
“I’ve been to the turbine, I’ve been inside it, and it was extremely quiet,” he said. “Does that mean I wasn’t exposed to infrasound? No.”
Town Councilor Daniel Slattery said the health problems, which he said were known as “turbine syndrome,” could be felt as far as three miles away, based on Andersen’s experience in Massachusetts.
“Any logical and analytical person has to admit there’s a large-scale risk in putting [turbines} in a residential area,” Slattery said.
Ronald Areglado, who moderated the meeting and was a party to the lawsuit, said he opposed the turbines on the basis of their location.
“We’re not opposed to alternate energy. We’re strongly opposed to industrial-sized turbines in a residential neighborhood,” he said.
Yet when he asked for a show of hands on how many people supported the proposed Deepwater wind power development in Block Island Sound, fewer than 10 went up.
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