Homeowners who live near wind turbines told state lawmakers Wednesday they should be able to sue for damages because of the problems sleeping, headaches and other health issues that emerged after wind farms were built.
They spoke in favor of a bill introduced by state Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere), whose district includes a wind farm in Brown County where several families have moved from their homes, citing health concerns.
Studies by acousticians at that project concluded that low-frequency sound was apparent at the homes near turbines in Brown County, and the state Public Service Commission concluded more study is needed on the issue.
Wind energy advocates say the no cause-and-effect link has yet been found between the presence of the sound and health problems experienced, but wind energy critics say that wasn’t the subject of the study.
Lasee said the bill is needed to give homeowners some recourse if they have experienced problems.
Opponents of the bill, including Wisconsin utilities and renewable energy companies, say the bill as written is overly broad and would open them up to lawsuits.
That runs counter to the agenda of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature on the topic of tort reform, said Joe Sullivan of Wind on the Wires, a group that includes wind energy companies.
“When I talked to my members, they look at this and say in general they like the direction that Wisconsin is going in terms of tort reform. They looked at this and said this would be our exemption from tort reform. That’s not a message we should be sending to major national and international companies.”
Homeowners testifying at the hearing said they hope the bill helps keep discussions alive on whether Wisconsin’s wind siting standards are sufficient to protect homeowners who live near wind turbines. Wind energy supporters say the standards in Wisconsin aren’t lax and that the state’s policies have left the state behind as other states moved more quickly to expand wind power generation.
“I’d like to see the noise reduced. I’d also like to see a property value protection plan,” said Jeff Bump of Cambria, whose home is near turbines in the We Energies Glacier Hills Wind Park, Wisconsin’s largest wind farm.
Bump says he can no longer sleep in his upstairs bedroom because of noise from the wind turbines nearby.
“I do not think a privately owned company should have the right to take our sleep away,” said Elizabeth Eberts of Marshfield, whose home is near turbines in the We Energies Blue Sky Green Field wind development. “Somebody should be held accountable for it.”
We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said the Milwaukee utility has investigated concerns raised by homeowners. “We have worked with residents – including those residents that testified today – to mitigate those concerns.”
The utility built and operated the turbines in compliance with the state’s noise standards and the agreements it negotiated with local communities, he said.
The hearing was before a legislative committee chaired by Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), who said he was concerned about the complaints that are coming from different Wisconsin wind farms and pledged to continue to have meetings on the issue.
Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) said the bill was written so broadly that would allow people to sue not only wind developers and utilities but also farmers and other property owners that have leased portions of their land to host wind turbines.
Representatives of the state’s utilities and the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Wisconsin’s largest business lobby, are opposing the bill, along with wind power companies.
In testimony submitted to the committee, William Skewes, head of the Wisconsin Utilities Association, said the bill would drive up liability insurance costs for utilities, costs that would be reflected in utility customers’ rates.
Utilities said they built wind farms to comply with the Legislature’s direction to expand cleaner energy sources. Wisconsin’s renewable energy standard calls for 10% of the state’s electricity to be supplied by renewable energy by 2015.
“Requiring the utilities to build renewable projects, requiring them to comply with all permitting terms and conditions, and then passing a law to target them for significant liability risk for following Wisconsin law and policy places Wisconsin utilities in an untenable position,” Skewes said.
Lasee said that the utilities should not be so concerned. If there are no problems from wind farms, there should be very few suits that go anywhere, he said.
The state Public Service Commission’s wind siting council is working to prepare a report next year for the Legislature, evaluating the latest scientific research on the health effects of wind energy, commission spokesman Nathan Conrad said.
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