The company behind a southern Brown County wind farm recently declared a public health hazard still doesn’t know what, if anything, the county intends to do about that declaration.
Neither does Brown County.
The county’s health board, which made the formal declaration two weeks ago, has deferred the next step to the corporation counsel, who has deferred it to the health board.
“Everybody thinks it’s my call,” said corporation counsel Juliana Ruenzel. “I have no authority to make the call.”
The decision of what to do next must come from the county’s Health Department or its overseeing board, she said.
Judy Friederichs, director of the Health Department, said the next step is “more of a legal question.”
“Our office writes citations, but the problem is, there’s no real specific ordinance that covers this,” she said.
“There’s a general human health hazard ordinance, which could be referenced, but the devil is in the details. We’re going to have to sit down and see how to really enforce it. We and the board will be meeting with Juliana and discussing that, discussing what options this opens up.”
It’s a complex situation, made more complicated by the fact that Brown County apparently is out in front of the issue. It’s the first in the state – and possibly the first in the nation – to make such a formal declaration about the safety of wind farms, according to Audrey Murphy, president of the Health Board.
The board declared at its October meeting that wind turbines operating in the town of Glenmore produce what is known as infrasound, or inaudible noise that sickens residents, even outside the 1,250-foot distance from their homes that is the requirement of the state’s wind-siting council.
“We did not take this lightly,” Murphy said.
“I think our board has been reasonable. Over these last four years, we’ve passed resolutions, gone to the Public Service Commission, the Legislature, the governor. The complainants have filed over 50 affidavits concerning health issues relating to these wind turbines. Our Board of Health also made a formal request to (the state health department to) have an epidemiological study done, and it was never done.
“These citizens really have very little recourse.”
Murphy said three neighbors of the Shirley Wind Farm, operated by Duke Energy, have abandoned their homes due to physical ailments they say began when the farm started operation in 2010. That extreme step should be enough to convince people that those neighbors aren’t exaggerating or imagining things, Murphy said.
“All of the citizens tell us that when they leave, their health problem subside or go away,” Murphy said. “I can’t believe in this economy people would leave their homes. One family had a five-bedroom house. Who would do that? Farmers have complained their calves are dying, their chickens aren’t laying.
“I guess we felt some action was necessary.”
Ruenzel said the Health Board’s declaration falls within the parameters of state statutes governing human health problems, a statute she says gives them the authority to order abatement of the problem or removal of the cause. Whether the board orders that or not hasn’t been decided.
“I think what happened was the people on the board as well as Judy saying to the people who were giving testimony that they meet the qualifications, so they called it a human health hazard, but they didn’t think about what would happen next,” Ruenzel said.
“And you’re not going to get an answer right now, because nobody knows.”
Murphy cited a study done on the Shirley Wind Farm as proof of the adverse human health effects of wind turbines and said it mirrors studies done elsewhere in the country and across the globe.
Duke Energy has yet to hear what if any steps Brown County intends to take following its declaration, company spokeswoman Tammi McGee said this week.
McGee pointed to new Canadian research that she says shows no evidence supporting a link between health and exposure to wind turbine noise. The study concluded the turbines apparently cause annoyance in some situations but nothing that constitutes a health effect, she said.
Chris Kunkel, spokesman for the Madison law firm Cullen, Weston, Pines & Bach, that represents wind energy clients throughout the country, said science doesn’t support a link between wind turbines and human health issues.
Wisconsin’s wind-siting council this week released its five-year report on worldwide scientific studies of wind energy, and it indicates the state should continue allowing wind farms under its current safety standards, Kunkel said.
“All of the scientific literature out there has found there isn’t a direct causal link – there just isn’t – between the presence of wind turbines and a health impact,” Kunkel said.
“The state’s wind-siting council looked at 45 different pieces of literature, different government reports, different scientific studies … there’s one in Massachusetts, one in Oregon, Australia, Ontario, all have found the same thing: no evidence for a set of health effects that can be called wind turbine syndrome.
“These are peer-reviewed studies, which have a much higher scientific standard than this very small Shirley Wind Farm study,” he said.
He acknowledged that studies have been unable to prove there is no link but said none have been able to establish such a link.
Studies, however, have suggested that people may be susceptible to the power of suggestion involving wind turbine harm, Kunkel said.
One study involved giving people misinformation about such health concerns and then exposing them to real and sham infrasound, he said. It showed people who started off with negative opinions about wind turbines tended to exhibit health problems when they believed they were being exposed to real infrasound.
“I’m not saying that to minimize anything. These are legitimate concerns that people have, and it is something the industry takes seriously, but we have to go based on the science that is out there,” he said.
Dr. Jay Tibbetts, vice president of the Brown County Health Board and its medical adviser, disagreed.
He said some residents in Shirley can tell when turbines are running or not running without even seeing them. That would only be possible if those people are truly sensing something that most people can’t hear, he said.
The turbines have forced people to move from their homes, and “it’s not just for jollies,” he said.
“In Shirley, three people have moved out of their homes,” he said. “I know all three. They’re not nuts. They’re severely suffering.”
Read the report
See the state siting council’s five-year report at http://psc.wi.gov/renewables/documents/windSitingReport2014.pdf
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