The Prime Minister is proposing the creation of a wind farm commissioner to handle complaints about turbine noise and their alleged health impacts. Tony Abbott says the concerns need to be taken seriously. Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy and Liberal Democratic senator David Leyonhjelm debate the issue with Steve Cannane.
STEVE CANNANE, PRESENTER: Peter Costello once referred to Tony Abbott as a Don Quixote ready to take on lost causes and fight for great principles. Well, that metaphor has become more literal in the past week. Don Quixote was famous for tilting at wind mills, after mistaking them for giants now Tony Abbott is taking the sword to the wind power industry.
TONY ABBOTT, PRIME MINISTER: What we did, recently in the Senate, was reduce, Alan, reduce, reduce, we reduced the number of these things that we are going to get in the future. Now I would frankly have liked to have reduced the number a lot more. I do take your point about the potential health impacts of these things. When I have been up close to these wind farms there is no doubt not only are they visually awful visually awful but they make a lot of noise.
STEVE CANNANE: And now the Government is proposing the creation of a wind farm Commissioner to handle complaints about turbine noise, and the alleged health impacts. The initial reaction on social media was sceptical. The hashtag ‘All the Commissioners’ started trending, with some declaring there should also be a Commissioner for issues like overtaking on the inside lane and people walking slowly side by side on crowded footpaths.
Wind farm advocates suggested the PM should appoint a coal Commissioner.
RICHARD DI NATALE, GREENS LEADER: We don’t have evidence of alien abduction, should we be spending public funds looking into it? No, we shouldn’t. Is there a credible, plausible mechanism through which wind farms might adversely impact on people’s health in the way that some of these extreme views might indicate? No, there’s not.
STEVE CANNANE: But the Government insist the alleged health problems of wind turbines and infra-sound are a major concern and need to be taken seriously.
Well someone who has also had concerns is the Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, he set up the Senate select committee on wind turbines and has consulted widely with rural residents in affected areas.
He’s with me in Sydney tonight and we’re also joined by Kelly O’Shanassy in our Melbourne studio. She’s the chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and a strong supporter of wind power.
Hello to you both.
DAVID LEYONHJELM, LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC SENATOR: Hello.
KELLY O’SHANASSY, CEO AUSTRALIAN CONSERVATION FOUNDATION: Hi Steve.
STEVE CANNANE: Now David, why do we need a wind farm Commissioner?
DAVID LEYONHJELM: Basically it’s a failure of governance. In Victoria, for example, we’ve got the State Government approving wind turbines and then handing over compliance, you know, sticking with the rules, to the Local Government bodies, the councils.
They are small, rural Councils, they’re not equipped, it’s a highly sophisticated industry, major multi-national companies with – dealing with an area that’s not scientifically well sorted out. They have no expertise in acoustics, people who are getting sick who are in proximity to these wind turbines are being treated really badly, ignored, discounted, told there is something wrong with their heads, something needs to be done.
STEVE CANNANE: Kelly, is that a fair argument for to have a wind farm Commissioner?
KELLY O’SHANASSY: Well, no, it’s not, because there’s been no less than eight studies done by the Federal Government in the last five years on whether wind farms cause ill health, and every single study has found that there is no evidence of that so far. I will say that there is a lot of evidence showing that coal does cause ill health and I think the people at the start of the pack there were right; we don’t need Commissioners for everything that could possibly annoy us or go wrong. I don’t want to belittle the argument here, but there is no evidence that ill health exists.
And in various States and Territories there are environment protection authorities and Department of Health and Department of Environment that people can go to, to make complaints about noise and about any other ill health that they feel from wind farms.
STEVE CANNANE: Alright now David, you’re a proponent of small Government and a need to be meticulous about how we spend taxpayers money. So that we know whether this will be good value for money, can you tell us how many people are complaining about the health impact of wind turbines in Australia every year?
DAVID LEYONHJELM: I don’t know. I don’t know. All I know is there is a lot of them. They have a very consistent story. We have heard from people who have welcomed wind farms into their area. Sometimes welcomed them on to their farm and they are very happy to be part of the renewable energy sector.
When the turbine starts up, or the turbines, there are usually dozens, if not hundreds of them, they get sick. They move away from the area for a time, they get better. They move back again, they get sick again. That’s and- when Kelly says there is no evidence, there is an absolute mass of anecdotal evidence. It’s the strict by the book peer review scientific evidence. Nobody says that that’s present.
STEVE CANNANE: OK but you’ve sat on committees looking at this issue if you don’t know how many people are making complaints how do you know if we actually need a Commissioner or not?
DAVID LEYONHJELM: Because they are so consistent and because they are not being addressed. This has been going on for a decade. In fact probably longer than a decade really, probably more like two decades. It’s been going on, been getting ignored, the complaints keep occurring, new wind farms get established. New series of complaints occur around the wind farms, it’s just such a predictable outcome. Now, with the new RET, we are going to have anything up to 2,000 more turbines established. They’ll be the big ones, the 3 megawatt and above. The evidence suggests they are the ones most likely to cause people around them to become ill. It’s a concern. I don’t think we should be causing harm.
STEVE CANNANE: OK I’ll get Kelly to respond to that. Kelly if we have a Commissioner, could it actually be good for industry, because if what you are saying is true about the safety record of wind turbines, would it be good to have scrutiny and to put those claims to rest?
KELLY O’SHANASSY: I think what we are saying is there is incredible scrutiny already. There’s processes where people can make complaints. And I do have an answer to your question, Steve. There was a study done by the University of Sydney of complaints on wind farms received from the existence of wind farms in Australia up until the end of 2012. So there’s a couple of years missing. But there was 129 complaints made and analysed in that study. And what they found is that 90 per cent of those complaints occurred after anti-wind farm activists had gone into those local areas. So where anti-wind farm activists aren’t present there are few complaints. And so one of the findings of this is the nocebo effect, that actually it’s the anti-wind farm activists that are making people sicker than the actual wind farms themselves. Which there is no evidence of ill health coming from wind farms.
STEVE CANNANE: So David if there was only 120 up to 2012 and 90 per cent of them according to Kelly came after activists were in the area does that mean that there’s no value for taxpayers in having a Commissioner here?
DAVID LEYONHJELM: I presume Kelly is talking about Simon Chapman’s study, which is rejected out of hand by a lot of other people involved in the industry. Look, the issue is this – if the wind industry has got nothing to hide, why won’t they release their operating activities, their hours, their wind speed, their own noise measurement data?
Why won’t they release it? The first time it’s ever happened was when Pacific Hydro, to their credit, released their operating activities. It was compared to people getting sick, and a correlation was found. Now, I concede, correlation is not causation. The hard science is not in. But the anecdotal evidence is compelling and you cannot tell people you are not sick when they are sick.
STEVE CANNANE: Okay. David, the national – you talk about evidence, the national health and medical and research council concluded in February this year that there is currently no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects in humans. That’s evidence, isn’t it?
DAVID LEYONHJELM: No, we heard from the NH&MRC today in a hearing in Canberra. They have in fact commissioned additional work. They conceded additional work is required.
STEVE CANNANE: But they are still saying there is no evidence.
DAVID LEYONHJELM: That’s right. It’s scientific evidence. What they looked for was the peer reviewed double blind study, that is the gold standard. They looked for that and that doesn’t exist. And I’m not pretending it does exist. They discounted the hundreds of anecdotal stories in Australia, in NZ, in Canada, in the UK, Germany, and other places like that. There is a lot of that, but, yes, the gold standard doesn’t exist at the moment.
STEVE CANNANE: Alright Kelly, I’ll get your reaction to that because the National Medical Health And Research Council has called for further research haven’t they. Do you agree that further investigation is warranted?
KELLY O’SHANASSY: Well, I think that’s the reason why we are saying we don’t actually need a wind farm Commissioner, because this evidence, this information, is being sought again. This is the most overstudied form of producing energy in the country, perhaps even in the world, and what I would – I really congratulate the Senate for wanting to look after the health of Australians, I’m totally supportive of that. But if we are serious and genuine about that we’d be looking to coal, we’d be looking at the Hazelwood mine fire, and – anecdotal evidence; I was standing with a fellow who lives 400 metres from that mine when it was on fire, he couldn’t breathe, his kids couldn’t breathe. 19 times the standard was exceeded. That is dangerous.
STEVE CANNANE: Alright so David, why not have an energy Commissioner, someone who at coals and gas, someone who looks into wind turbines, someone who looks into coal?
DAVID LEYONHJELM: Well that argument is based on the proposition if you can’t solve all of the problems, don’t try and solve any of them or don’t try and solve this one.
KELLY O’SHANASSY: It’s based on solving the biggest problem, I think Senator is what we’re saying.
DAVID LEYONHJELM: OK but I’m not saying the problems with the Hazelwood fire weren’t significant.
I’m not saying coal mines don’t cause problems. But there is a problem here. It is not to be discounted. The NH&MRC has said it’s worthy of investigation. In due course, I think that the big wind companies will be found to be negligent. In the beginning, thalidomide did not have a peer review double blind study proving it caused deformities in people. There was only anecdotal evidence in the beginning. Over time the gold standard was met. Same with asbestos, same with a series of things.
STEVE CANNANE: Are Kelly are you seeing parallels here between asbestos and thalidomide and wind farms?
KELLY O’SHANASSY: Well I do see some evidence around the tobacco industry because and I know that the Senator had mentioned that in previous comments, because the tobacco industry spent a lot of money trying to put out disinformation around tobacco and in health many decades ago and we’re seeing exactly the same thing around coal and I would question where the funding of these anti-wind farm lobby groups are coming from. But we do know, coal is dangerous, climate change is dangerous, and if we are going to solve that problem we need renewable energy and wind is a big part of that.
STEVE CANNANE: David you said today that wind farms companies are terrible neighbours, what’s the evidence of that?
DAVID LEYONHJELM: We have heard so much evidence of that. They won’t release their data that’s number one. That’s probably the single biggest…
STEVE CANNANE: Is that commercial in confidence?
DAVID LEYONHJELM: No, it’s not. All it is, is when are you running your turbines? What’s your own noise emission data? That sort of stuff is crucial to assessing whether they are causing any harm. On top of that they are highly litigious, they’re really obnoxious to their neighbours, they’re threatening to sue them, they put gag clauses in their contracts. They’re dreadful neighbours.
STEVE CANNANE: Alright Kelly, I’ll get your response to that. Are they dreadful neighbours and are they negligent for not even releasing the data?
KELLY O’SHANASSY: Well as I said earlier, this is the most over studied industry. The data has been released it is available, it has been studied and there is no evidence connecting it to ill health. I know these people as well they’re regular business people. And they – there is many, many people that live in the country, that are next to these wind farms that have wind farms on their property that are very supportive. Some of them were speaking up in the press in the last few days. So I think we should look at the evidence here and not put ideological claims, we need to look at – I agree with the Senator, peer reviewed evidence.
And that is the work that has been done today.
STEVE CANNANE: David what qualifications should a Commissioner have and how should they be chosen? For example should the PM be able to choose the Commissioner given he has criticised the industry publically?
DAVID LEYONHJELM: That’s a good questions – I think somebody who knows how to go and find expert evidence and take expert advice who doesn’t discount what is good anecdotal evidence, who knows how to understand perhaps scientific evidence, and distinguish between what is scientific and what’s not scientific.
Can I just also respond to Kelly’s points earlier. We are not talking about renewable energy being bad. We are talking about one form of renewable energy having a problem, which they won’t face up to. I have got no…
STEVE CANNANE: OK.
DAVID LEYONHJELM: No disagreements about solar, for example, you can live next door to one of those.
STEVE CANNANE: I want to come back to Kelly, if we are going to have a Commissioner, who should it be, what should their qualifications be? Who should choose it?
KELLY O’SHANASSY: Well, I don’t think we should have one. I don’t know what their qualifications should be because there is already opportunity for people to complain. The scientists have already looked at the data. So if it is someone such as the Senator said who is good at finding evidence and information I think that already exists with the National Medical Health And Research Council, the expert body in this country has already done a number of reviews. So I think it is a total waste of taxpayers’ money and it will delay the deployment of renewable energy in this country. And if you like renewable energy you have to like wind farms. Because they are the biggest, most fastest growing renewable energy on the planet.
STEVE CANNANE: Alright. We’ve run out of time, thanks to you both for coming in.
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