Promising investigation into health impacts of industrial wind turbines halted after Medical Officer of Health was dismissed
Huron County hugs the shoreline of Lake Huron between Amberley and Grand Bend. At its centre is Goderich. The county reaches inland across mostly flat farmland about 75 kilometres. It is home to about 270 industrial wind turbines. Twice that many are planned.
As more turbines go up, more people complain the machines are affecting their health and the wellbeing of their children.
As the complaints piled up Huron County’s Medical Officer of Health (MOH) Dr. Janice Owen felt she had a duty to investigate. She had been appointed just a year earlier after considerable turmoil amid the governance and administration of that county’s Board of Health. That turmoil had ultimately led to the dismissal of Dr. Owen’s predecessor, Dr. Nancy Cameron.
Dr. Owen knew she was embarking on rough political waters when she began to propose a health investigation into complaints that industrial wind turbines were making some people sick. Several of the municipalities and councils share in the revenue from these projects. Furthermore, the Board of Health is composed exclusively of sitting council members and one former councillor.
So Dr. Owen was careful. She proceeded slowly—explaining every step to the board along the way. She told them that she was proposing an investigation—not a research study. It would look at complaints and determine if there was a public health issue. It would not look at causality. She explained that it was her legislatively-defined duty in response to the volume of complaints.
In February, Dr. Owen outlined her proposed investigation to the Board of Health. In March, she explained to the board the structure of the investigation before a crowded meeting. About 80 residents filled the 45 seats in the chamber and spilled outside.
In April, Dr. Owen was fired.
Tyler Hessel is chair of the Huron County Board of Health. He is also Mayor of Bluewater, one of the lowertier municipalities that form Huron County.
He confirmed to the London Free Press that the Huron County Board of Health and Dr. Owen had parted ways, “but everything is going to continue moving forward as usual,” he said.
Hessel said that Owen’s departure was unrelated to the wind farm issue and that work would be carried on by health unit staff according to the London Free Press account.
That was five weeks ago.
On Monday, May 16, Hessel and the board changed course again, announcing it was putting the investigation on hold.
He told the London Free Press that while no decision had been made to drop the probe, the board wanted to check with the province to ensure the work by the health unit doesn’t duplicate other efforts.
Huron East resident Gerry Ryan had hoped Dr. Owen’s investigation would finally reveal the serious health issues related to the industrial wind turbines in his community. At the March Board of Health meeting in which Dr. Owen described the plan of investigation, Ryan had presented 26 resident-impact statements.
He emerged from the meeting feeling that his community might have some concrete answers. Joy dissolved into frustration last month, however, when he learned Dr. Owen had been dismissed.
Despite Hessel’s personal assurances that Dr.Owen’s investigation would continue, Ryan didn’t believe it.
“It looks like they are trying to shut down this investigation,” Ryan told The Times. He says his fears were confirmed last week when the board decided it would ask the province if it should proceed with the investigation.
But why would the directors of the Huron County Board of Health want to spike an investigation, and why would they go to the extreme of dismissing another Medical Officer of Health?
“Politics and money,” said Ryan.
He believes the Board of Health is too intertwined with the politics of Huron County and that many of its constituent municipalities share in the revenue from these projects.
“They have a conflict of interest,” says Ryan.
“Some municipalities benefit from a vibrancy fund from the projects in their community. Then that member goes to a public Board of Health meeting where they are called upon to vote on a health investigation related to industrial wind turbines—an investigation that could lead to further regulation and impact the production of power and revenue. I would say that is a conflict of interest, at least indirectly.”
Ryan says others members fear arousing the ire of the province. He says the Bluewater mayor told him that three-quarters of the Board of Health funding came from the province. Ryan suggests that the board worries that more questions and investigations could jeopardize its funding.
But Ryan says the Board of Health ought to be focused on the health of its residents rather than its funding.
Ryan says people in his community want answers. The number of turbines in Huron County is slated to grow to more than 520. They want to know if industrial wind turbines are a risk to their health. He was hopeful that Dr. Owen’s investigations would produce answers.
But Dr. Owen is gone and her investigation is in limbo.
He predicts that if this investigation is quashed in Huron County, no other community will take it on. Besides, it is a perfect laboratory, according to Ryan. Few other jurisdictions around the world have so many industrial wind turbines jammed into such small areas as in Huron County.
Mayor Tyler Hessel declined to respond to a request for comment from The Times.