Not only has the Ontario government ordered almost no research into wind farms on the Great Lakes since it banned them so it could do more research, it’s done none whatsoever on the worry that prompted the ban: the risk of poisoning Ontario’s drinking water with gunk stirred up from the lake bottoms.
The province has previously been very vague about what research it’s waiting for, and it’s now pretty clear why. There’s no indication that research is coming anytime soon.
Back in 2011, the province killed numerous projects to put industrial windmills out on the waters of Ontario’s big lakes, where the wind is strong and it’s easier to build really large wind farms – potentially generating as much power as a nuclear reactor – without enraging as many neighbours as wind farms on land can. The world had wind farms in oceans but not in freshwater lakes, and the government wanted more science done on how to build them safely, the province said at the time.
It was the second time we froze Great Lakes wind farms, after a shorter ban imposed before the 2007 election. The government lifted that one in 2008; the newer one is still in place.
Offshore wind farms were once a pillar of Ontario’s green-energy plans. We were going to spend some money and take some chances and become world leaders and reap the rewards. Officially, they still are – we just aren’t allowing any.
Plus the government is facing a $500-million lawsuit from one would-be wind-farm developer called Trillium Power, a roughly $500-million claim under the North American Free Trade Agreement from another called Windstream, and now an Ontario Provincial Police investigation over the alleged deletion of documents related to the decision to impose the second moratorium. All without a windmill to show for it.
Since 2011, the government’s received three studies on freshwater wind farms that it had underway at the time, and waited four years before commissioning two more in 2015. Together, the five studies look at protecting fish habitat, how windmill noise carries over water, a review of existing “coastal engineering” research on offshore wind farms, and what to think about when we eventually have to take worn-out windmills down.
None of them has much to do with what the Liberal environment minister who imposed the 2011 moratorium, John Wilkinson, says concerns him most about wind farms in the Great Lakes.
Wilkinson laid it out in a formal witness statement entered in the NAFTA case at an international tribunal in The Hague, which went into vastly more detail than the public announcement of the moratorium. That just cited a need for more scientific research generally, not on any specific subject.
“While I was briefed on many environmental concerns related to noise emissions, disturbance of benthic life forms, navigation, potential structural failure, safety hazards and decommissioning, the issue that heavily influenced my decision was the effect the construction of an offshore wind facility might have on drinking water,” his signed statement says. The Windstream project would have stirred up the bed of Lake Ontario in 100 places and “I was concerned about how this might displace the historically contaminated sediment on the lakebed and whether it would end up in the drinking water system.”
The statement elaborates for pages, talking about protecting both Canadian and U.S. water supplies and invoking Ontario’s experience at Walkerton, where a badly run municipal water system got contaminated with bacteria that killed seven people.
The ban was absolutely not about saving Liberal-held lakefront seats, it says. “It was a Solomon decision,” the statement says.
Wilkinson stands by the judgment.
“There’s a century of toxic industrial waste in the Great Lake sediments,” he said in an email exchange this week. “My decision was based on the principle we would not allow folks to disturb that pollution until we could reasonably predict the consequences and ensure no threat to drinking water, both ours and our American neighbours.”
He pointed to annual algae explosions in Lake Erie believed to be fed by phosphorus in fertilizer. Some kinds of algae release toxins that conventional water treatment can’t remove.
“Sediments at the bottom of the Great Lakes contain the cumulative phosphorus from agricultural runoff that has settled there over decades. If left undisturbed, it cannot feed an algae bloom. But there was no way to construct hundreds of proposed offshore wind turbines without stirring up the phosphorus and other contaminants,” Wilkinson said, and in his view the existing rules on protecting drinking water didn’t properly cover construction way out in the lakes.
On the face of it, that’s a totally reasonable thing to worry about. But here’s the thing. If you were worried about sediment and drinking water, you’d have somebody study sediment and drinking water, right?
Wilkinson was environment minister for eight months after he imposed the moratorium, until he lost his southwestern Ontario seat in the election later in 2011.
“I can’t tell you what happened regarding the science after I left government, since I don’t know,” Wilkinson says. “What I can say is my decision left the door open to small pilot projects to develop the science. I do recall that proponents, after I made the decision, rejected building pilot scale projects, citing economics.”
The current environment minister, Glen Murray, wouldn’t say whether he shares Wilkinson’s concerns about drinking water, because of the NAFTA case.
“Ontario will not proceed with offshore wind projects until there is sufficient wide ranging scientific evidence proving it will not have adverse effects to humans or the local environment,” he offered, through spokesman David Mullock.
They are doing these two current studies, on noise and how to take down old turbines. “Once these studies are completed, (the ministry) intends to analyze the findings and determine whether further studies are required,” Mullock said.
Such as, perhaps, one on the actual problem that supposedly killed Ontario’s Great Lakes wind farms.
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