Late last year a group of rural residents met me to discuss their concerns over wind farms in their communities. They came from different areas and presented as sensible, down to earth people who you would be pleased to have as neighbours.
What I heard was a litany of planning ineptitude, government and industry indifference, and people becoming sick in homes they had lived in for decades.
I was so disturbed by this I moved a motion in the Senate to establish a committee to inquire into the regulation and governance of wind farms. All government and most crossbench senators supported my motion.
The inquiry has its fifth public hearing today. Although there are more to come, some matters are now apparent.
Firstly, it is beyond dispute wind turbines emit infrasound and low frequency noise, much of which is inaudible to most people. It is also well established that inappropriate levels of infrasound, regardless of the source, cause adverse health impacts.
We have known this since 1987, when Neil Kelley identified a direct causal link between impulsive infrasound and low frequency noise, and adverse effects on people. Research by NASA two years later established wind turbines could generate surprisingly high levels of infrasound and low frequency noise.
It is also clear that 10 to 15 per cent of the population is more sensitive to noise, including low frequency noise and infrasound. It is a mystery why some people are affected and not others, but their symptoms are similar to motion sickness, which also only affects some people.
I have met some of those affected. They tell me they mainly suffer from chronic sleep deprivation, but some also suffer sinus pressure, tinnitus, pains in the chest, headaches, nausea, and vertigo. Their symptoms vary, but the similarities are striking for people who live so far apart.
This is not just a problem with wind turbines. Infrasound from any source has the potential to make people sick, including people living close to huge ventilator fans in coal mines or near gas and coal-fired power stations. Indeed, the federal government confirmed this in 2009.
The evidentiary finger points mainly at the big turbines erected in Australia over the past few years, many taller than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, that produce more infrasound and broadcast it over a larger area than smaller, older turbines. Around 1800 more turbines of the same or greater size will be built over the next five years, following government and Labor agreeing on a new renewable energy target of 33,000 GWh.
What disturbs me about this is that, as the inquiry has heard, wind farms are not required to limit or even monitor their infrasound emissions. And unless something changes, it is absolutely certain that tens of thousands of people who live within a few kilometres of these new turbines will become sick.
Some argue the evidence linking wind turbines to adverse health effects is too tenuous to warrant action. It is true that it is not yet well understood. Nonetheless, there is already quite a lot of evidence and it is building.
A study by Australian acoustician Steven Cooper demonstrated some people can sense infrasound even though they cannot see or hear the turbines. And doctors in Germany are now calling for a halt to further wind farm developments until more is known.
Unfortunately, the attitude of the wind industry and its representatives – such as the Australian Wind Alliance – towards the people affected by wind farms is completely callous. At a recent Senate hearing, one wind farm manager attempted to table a cartoon that lampooned their claims and suggested senators colour it in.
Others told us residents living near wind farms who wake in the middle of the night, with excruciating pressure in their heads, should receive counselling – suggesting they have a psychological problem, not a physiological one.
Big Wind’s attitude derives from a sense of smug untouchability. Because the science is still not fully understood, it can be rejected. Because they are part of the renewable energy sector, they are beyond reproach. And they have contact books full of journalists who will join them in the name-calling, despite few ever spending a night within whirring distance of a wind turbine.
Giving evidence, wind farm operators even denied owing a duty of care to nearby residents so long as they comply with what are clearly deficient regulations. This reminds me of Big Tobacco’s denials 50 years ago that cigarettes cause lung cancer.
By the time further studies are published in recognised journals following peer review, many more people will have suffered. The fact we are not yet at that stage is no excuse for inaction and will not absolve the wind industry from liability for its negligent refusal to mitigate the harm it causes.
Facing up to the consequences of its actions will not put the wind industry out of business. That will only occur if governments stop providing subsidies. The solution may be as simple as preventing turbines operating in synchronisation, which some believe causes amplification of infrasound, or requiring greater distances between turbines and residences.
Whatever emerges from the inquiry, it’s clear government and industry indifference towards people suffering because of their proximity to wind turbines needs to end. Like doctors, governments should at least do no harm.
David Leyonhjelm is Liberal Democrats Senator for NSW.
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