Illnesses from big wind turbines aren’t enough to stop new energy projects if windmill opponents’ self-diagnosed problems aren’t backed up by doctors, an Ontario court has ruled.
The case covers three wind farms near Lake Huron, but the ruling applies across the province, the first test of its kind of the government’s Green Energy Act.
The law was meant to make it easier to build wind and solar farms; its critics say it steamrolls local objections to industrial operations that blight Ontario’s countryside. Which it does, because that was the point.
In this case, the question is whether the act’s provision for stopping green-energy projects if they’ll cause “serious harm to human health” does enough to protect neighbours’ rights to protect their own bodies.
It does, a three-judge panel decided this week, and in examining the Lake Huron projects the province’s Environmental Review Tribunal did an acceptable job assessing the evidence.
That consisted, on one hand, of several scientists and doctors saying there’s no reliable evidence showing that big windmills are bad for the people who live near them – and on the other, people who live near wind farms blaming them for everything from sleep deprivation to earaches to heart palpitations.
Some of them had not raised their complaints with their doctors. Others had had their complaints checked out and tests found no medical basis for them.
It heard from a Queen’s University doctor, Kiernan Moore, who said that there’s a natural human tendency to associate any symptom with something new and unpleasant in our lives, like an unwanted windmill going up on the horizon.
Furthermore, he testified, five to eight per cent of people can be expected to claim they get health problems from everything from fluoride in drinking water to wireless Internet signals, insisting on it even in the absence of proof. Careful science is supposed to get past that, and science doesn’t back up the claim that wind farms make people ill.
And so whatever all these claims are, the tribunal found earlier this year, they aren’t proof of serious harm to human health. Legally speaking, “the Appellants did not provide professional medical opinions to diagnose the health complaints from the post-turbine witnesses and to establish a causal link between those complaints and wind turbines noise or noise from transformers.”
Without that link, the tribunal ruled, there’s no health claim to take seriously.
That was the right call, says a three-judge panel of Ontario’s Divisional Court, a superior-court branch whose main job is to review government decisions.
As the judges said: “(C)ausal conclusions based solely on self-reported health problems were scientifically speculative and likely misleading and … the level of information provided in the medical records of the post-turbine witnesses was insufficient to allow a medical practitioner to make definitive causal assessments between diagnoses, symptoms and wind turbines.”
Furthermore, the anti-turbine people (led by Huron County residents Shawn and Tricia Drennan, who are getting a windmill 700 metres from their farmhouse and a transformer even closer) didn’t do their case any favours by trying to bring in a recent study from Health Canada that found no conclusive evidence of health damage from wind farms in a survey of 1,200 people who live near them.
Windmills can be annoying – their blades can be noisy, their electrical components can be buzzy, they can cast flickering shadows – that study found, but annoyance doesn’t count as a medical problem. Nor, the judges said, does being anxious about potential medical problems in the absence of scientific proof there’s anything to be worried about.
So the fact that a lot of people hate, hate, hate seeing windmills on their doorsteps is neither here nor there, legally speaking. In politics, of course, it’s more important, and every win for the Green Energy Act in the courts means more lost votes for the Liberals who brought it in.
Although the case could still be appealed again, the three wind farms, with 248 windmills among them, are for now cleared to operate and have mostly finished construction. Two of them could start testing as soon as January.
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