There’s an ill wind blowing across the Tablelands, with rural landholders considering abandoning their multi-million dollar properties if the Mt Emerald Wind Farm gets the go-ahead.
They have accused the developers behind the renewable energy project of deceiving the community by downplaying the scale and impact of the wind farm, which involves the construction of up to 75 turbines – each about three times taller than Cairns Hospital.
Power producer Ratch Australia and property developer Port Bajool’s $380 million dollar project involves up to 75 wind turbines generating up to 225 megawatts of power from a 2400 hectare property aloft Mt Emerald, which is located about halfway between Atherton and Mareeba.
Each tower is to stand about 80-90m tall, with approximately 50m long blades.
The proponents claim the project will potentially generate enough electricity to power 75,000 homes each year. The two-year construction phase of the project will also create an estimated 158 jobs, with up to 45 people to be employed locally once it is complete.
Since the development application for the wind farm was brought to the Tablelands Regional Council in 2010, a storm of protest about the project has been stirred up within the close-knit Walkamin and Tolga farming community.
When the Tablelands Wind Turbine Action Group conducted a recent survey of those living within 5km of the proposed project site, it found about 90 per cent of residents opposed the development.
The group says locals are terrified of health and noise impacts from the turbines; they are concerned about the impact the construction phase could have upon native habitat; they fear their property values will be driven right down; and they have even questioned the spacing and efficiency of the turbines.
Jenny Disley and her partner Jack Krikorian live 1800m away from the project site, where they will have a clear view of the giant bladed towers from their back porch.
The couple have struggled to sell their sprawling 42.9ha property, which has been on the market for three years through multiple real estate agents, with a current price tag of about $5 million.
“We’ve had a bit of interest but no one will buy,’’ Ms Disley told the Cairns Post. “They keep telling us the reason for that is because of the Mt Emerald wind farm uncertainty.”
The pair operate rural workers accommodation business Walkamin Enterprises, providing labour to the thriving local agricultural industry.
Mr Krikorian is most concerned about the impact noise generated by the turbines may have on up to 40 workers staying in various cabins and homes on their property.
“If the noise impacts on those 40 people, that’s the end of our business,’’ he said.
“We are in the middle of an extremely active horticultural area, particularly for bananas, and all of those people need our service continuously.
“How do we get compensated, if everything that we work for is impacted?”
Ms Disley said if they were unable to be compensated for any land devaluation, and unable to sell, they would be left with no other choice but to abandon their land, becoming “wind farm refugees”.
“You can’t sell,’’ she said.
“You’ve sunk your whole life savings back into the property. If you can’t access your superannuation through a sale, you can’t live there because of the noise and infra (low frequency) sound.”
Ratch Australia thoroughly refutes any accusations the farm will generate noise pollution. It says any sound generated by the turbines will be less than that heard on a typical quiet suburban street (a level of 40 decibels).
The company and Port Bajool picked Mt Emerald for its “excellent” wind source, its proximity to the electricity grid, and potential for only “minimal” environmental and social impact.
At 4.5km away from Mt Emerald, one of the oldest families of the area, the Watkins family, believes that while the project may be a good idea, but it is being planned for the wrong spot.
Mt Uncle farmer and distillery owner Bruce Watkins says wind farms should be neither seen nor heard.
“If you see these things, you’re too close to them,’’ he said. “That’s the fact.
“I’m not against green energy. None of us in (the action) group are – we’re all after sustainable, healthy, green energy. I’m putting solar panels up (on the distillery roof) now.
“But where these so-called environmentalists go wrong, is they say we must have green energy, but they forget the (real) cost.”
The family has a berry farm within 1.5km of the wind farm site, employing more than 200 people. Mr Watkins said the construction phase of the development could create widespread problems for transport, and therefore businesses, across the region.
“There is a massive migration of the equipment to come up (to the Tablelands),’’ he said.
“You’ve got to appreciate they’ve got the right to commandeer main roads, traffic, everything. The delays in the traffic will be staggering.
“I’m not going to overemphasise it, but the fact is they’re going to get these things on the road, which are 80-tonne things, and they’re going to have to resurface the roads.
“At whose expense? We don’t know.”
When Bruce’s daughter Krista and her husband got married five years ago, they had been planning on building a dream house on the family’s land 2km from Mt Emerald.
The mountain even provided a backdrop in the couple’s wedding photos.
“We would have liked to have started to build a home there this year,’’ Krista said.
“But there is no way I’m going to spend $500,000 building an average home when the fact is I could be looking at a depreciated value of more than 50 per cent because of the wind turbines.”
About four years ago, the couple convinced friends to purchase property at the nearby Rangeview Estate.
Krista said it was a mistake that cost them a good relationship with their friends.
“It was the day they signed their contract, they bumped into some locals who were displaying Ratch’s own documents about the wind farm at the Tolga markets,’’ she said.
“The friends, furious, came back to us and said ‘you didn’t tell us about this’, and we saw (the development application) for the first time. We had no idea. (The developers) told us – many of us – it was just a few wind turbines. Way over the back. That was just a blatant lie, because they’re going to be all over that mountain.”
Last month, the development application was called in by the Deputy Premier and Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning Jeff Seeney.
The minister, at the time, said given the complexity of the proposed development, independent assessments would be carried out to evaluate the true economic, environmental and community impacts and benefits of the project.
The development could be approved later this year, with construction to commence in early 2015.
Ratch Australia executive general manager, business development, Geoff Dutton, said the company had been as open and transparent as possible with the community, maintaining solid communication lines about the project since it was first tabled with the Tablelands Regional Council.
He assured locals would not be disturbed by the turbines, once they were operational.
“We have tried to analyse every aspect of noise and where it will go,’’ he said.
“We look at the individual wind turbine manufacturers and their offerings to us, and go through, with them, very detailed specifications.
“Wind towers aren’t just built, they’re built with a view to being within regulations.”
He conceded there would be “some queues” for traffic during the construction phase, as the turbines and their blades were being transported up to the mountain.
“We won’t be going up from Cairns through Mareeba – the more direct route – that is not practical because there are a few sharp bends that no blade will ever go around,’’ he said.
“The better way is to go the long way round further south and then come back around from the Ravenshoe direction up towards the site.
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