The bitter winds of winter may be wonderful for turning the blades on the giant wind turbines that dot more-and-more of the southwestern Ontario landscape, yet their presence is sparking not only electricity, but also controversy, conflict, and a lawsuit that could ruin a family who’s daring to stand up to an American energy giant.
Esther Wrightman, 32, of Adelaide Township, west of London, Ontario, was shocked when the lawyer’s letter arrived in December to tell her that NextEra Energy Canada plans to go ahead with a lawsuit for defaming the company name in a video and blog she posted earlier in 2013. She explained to me that the suit, which NextEra launched against her last May, had remained dormant until recently.
The letter, “felt like a personal attack. After all, they got what they wanted. Their turbines have all been approved (in Wrightman’s area), and construction has started. Their attitude is ‘Just get her, just take one more kick’,” she said, wearily. Farmers’ fields that would normally be buried under a winter snow blanket are instead grey with the “massive amounts” of gravel being laid down for the turbines’ foundations, she describes.
Next Era is a Florida-based electricity giant that owns major American interests such as Florida Power and Light and describes itself as the largest generator of wind and solar power in North America, with over 100 projects in the U.S. and Canada.
The company wants to meet and plan the course of the lawsuit by the end of January, but Wrightman is still waiting to see if she will be getting some pro bono legal help. “There’s no way we can afford lawyers,” she said. Her husband is receiving a disability pension and her job is only part-time, working in her father’s plant nursery business, she explains.
The controversy arose over a video Wrightman posted to YouTube that shows NextEra workers chopping down a tree with an active eagle nest in the Haldimand, Ontario area, north of Lake Erie in January 2013 while Esther and a group of activists yell at the NextEra crew. She changed the company’s logo to read “NextError” and “Next Terror.”
The company asked her to take down the logos several times and sent her a “cease and desist” letter before launching the suit, according to the company’s statement of claim for the court. Wrightman’s video is a “mutilation” of NextEra’s name and logos, and suggests the company is a terrorist organization, according to the statement. Her actions aim to support Wrightman’s “business interests” in raising money to fight wind developments, the suit claims.
Wrightman said people in her area called the company “NextTerror” before she posted her “parody” online, in her statement of defence. The statement says the company has earned the nickname by bringing a state of “fear, terror of invasion, worry, anxiety, and destruction” to her community. For instance, she claims if landowners refuse to sign easements, NextEra has threatened to take legal action against them, and has threatened to get their land expropriated if needed for the wind projects. Agents have threatened to put power transmission lines from the turbines in front of houses or over barns, the statement adds.
NextEra intimidates people by excessive use of security guards and police protection, at open house meetings, while taking down an eagle’s nest, and while surveying roads, she told the court. Wrightman also describes how individuals with information or signs are forced to remain outside at public meetings, in some cases escorted out, or material removed and objecting individuals are publicly berated. In at least one case, she claims the company hired a videographer to film people objecting to a wind project at an open house. The videographer taunted and filmed residents, until police told him to leave the grounds, according to her statement. Esther insists the lawsuit is “frivolous” and really is just another form of intimidation used by NextEra; simply as an exercise in SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), designed to stifle opposition.
NextEra simply wants Wrightman to remove the altered logos on her videos, said company spokesman Steve Stengel in an email to VICE. The company “has stated repeatedly that Ms. Wrightman can bring this litigation to an immediate end by removing the defaced name and logos from the websites she controls, while otherwise keeping her stories completely intact,” he wrote.
“NextEra supports the speech rights of Ms. Wrightman. This lawsuit is a measured response to protect the goodwill associated with NextEra’s name… without impinging on Ms. Wrightman’s ability to freely express her opinions,” according to Stengel’s mail. He said filing the suit was “a last resort. “
He refused to comment on any of Wrightman’s specific accusations about intimidation tactics at public meetings.
While NextEra is giving Wrightman a SLAPP in the face, another blow is being administered by, of all groups, the United Way of Canada. The power company promises in its court documents to donate any winnings from the lawsuit to the United Way, and this, the august dean of Canadian charities, shocked Wrightman’s father by declaring itself ready to accept the money. In a letter to Harvey Wrightman last November, one of United Way’s vice-presidents, Sylvain Beaudry, states the group will accept the damages, though the United Way is “totally unaware” of the suit and has not been in contact with the company or its lawyers. When contacted by VICE, officials at the charity’s headquarters in Ottawa refused comment.
Wrightman, a low-income mother of two, couldn’t believe that attitude. “We’re renters here, and could be using United Way services ourselves.” If the suit goes against her, “United Way could be getting my income paid to them for years and years to come,” she said. “This is Robin Hood in reverse,” added her father. “The United Way can jump up-and-down and claim they remain impartial, but these moral choices are going to come up, especially for organizations such as this.”
Donations to the United Way will be drying up in the area, says Marcelle Brooks, owner of a 100-acre organic farm that will be “smack-dab in the middle” of two wind turbine developments in Lambton County, north and east of Sarnia, 92 in NextEra’s Jericho site and 46 in a project by Suncor. She wrote to the United Way’s Beaudry right after his letter to Harvey Wrightman, but still has not received a reply. “We donate. They are very much part of our community. We are not wealthy around here, though. Many of us use the food banks. It feels like they are exploiting the very people they are providing a service to,” she emphasized.
Both Wrightman and Brooks say NextEra throws piles of money around to silence opposition in host communities. Not only do they use the lure of lucrative land leases to farmers, but they also donate to local agencies such as conservation authorities that could be potentially silenced in their objection to wind projects. “They’re just buying the community,” said Brooks.
Municipal council members are also individually threatened with legal action if they pass bylaws unfavourable to the company, Wrightman claims. NextEra lawyers have been known to show up and use the public’s question period to threaten councils with legal action, she adds.
Opposition to wind turbines in southwest Ontario centres around health effects, said Brooks. Her neighbours have seven children, three of them with autism. The youngest has “intense sensitivity to sound” and the parents are afraid the low-frequency sound that some scientific studies have associated with wind turbines could have serious effects on the child, Brooks reported.
Similar fears fill many of Esther Wrightman’s waking moments. It may be a funny time of year for new growth in farm country, but as one of NextEra’s turbines sprouts only 1600m away, she weighs the options and considers the future for her family. They’ll probably be forced to move, as she told me. Convinced that reports of headaches brought on by living near the giant windmills are genuine, she worries what could happen to her daughter who suffers from migraines. “It kills me to leave. I grew up just across the road, but we have no choice.”
As far as the lawsuit, Wrightman remains defiant. She refuses to remove the video from YouTube and has moved her blog to an Icelandic web site. Iceland has recently enacted tough privacy legislation to protect bloggers who wish to avoid legal attacks such as the one she’s experiencing, she explained.
Whatever the outcome, Harvey Wrightman has faith in his daughter. “Not everyone can handle this kind of thing. I don’t think I could. But I know her, she’s very strong. She sleeps well at night.”
Ed’s note: In an earlier version of this article, the headline incorrectly identified Esther as a single mother. We regret this error.