Residents from North Stormont arrived by the dozens at the community hall Monday to watch the effort to halt a wind energy project that has already been approved for the area.
Nation Rise Wind Farm Ltd. received a renewable energy approval in early May from the director of the Ministry of the Environment, Mohsen Keyvani, which allows the company to go ahead with plans to build wind turbines in North Stormont. Soon after the approval was given, a community group called The Concern Citizens of North Stormont filed an appeal with the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal in an attempt to invalidate it.
The tribunal hearing to judge the merits of that appeal was convened in Finch on Monday and is expected to hear nine days of testimony before rendering a decision by late November. Strict limitations have been placed on what can be argued over the next two weeks. The only basis for revoking or altering the approval is if it can be shown the project would cause serious harm to human health or plant and animal life.
“I will make a decision based on all the evidence presented before me,” said Maureen Carter-Whitney, the tribunal member overseeing the hearings. “The purpose is to determine whether engaging in a renewable energy project … will cause serious harm to human health or serious or irreversible harm to animal and plant life or the environment. That is all that can be considered when reviewing the director’s decision.”
Monday’s meeting consisted almost entirely of sworn testimony from residents – mostly dairy farmers – who live within a kilometre of the turbines and believe their health and that of their livestock will be harmed by the windmills. The witnesses were then asked questions by counsel representing the concerned citizen’s group, the company and the Ministry of the Environment.
There were two main potential harms pointed by almost all of the witnesses: noise and water contamination.
The issue of noise coming from turbines is a long-standing criticism raised against many wind-power projects. The argument is the persistent noise from the windmills is not only annoying, but can unforeseen impacts on human health and animals that can hear different frequencies that humans cannot.
Witnesses on Monday argued the noise could distress their livestock and cause cows to produce less milk. Some also said they had young family members with hearing sensitivities caused by conditions such as perforated eardrums that would suffer more from the noise than other people might.
One witness, Karine Walkey-Skinner said she worries the noise will exacerbate her pre-existing mental illness.
“I’m afraid that should the noise hamper my ability to get enough sleep, it will cause my condition to worsen,” she said.
Nation Rise’s plans expect the average noise level coming from their North Stormont turbines would be 40 decibels. Although an average implies it could be either louder or quieter than that at different times, 40 decibels is about the same as the interior of a library, bird calls, or the quietest of urban neighbourhoods. But it is twice as loud as the ambient noise of most rural areas, which is 30 decibels.
The other most common example of potential harm caused by the turbines was groundwater contamination, which would be a disaster for both human and animal health in the area. But how the construction of the turbines would cause such contamination was not clearly explained during the opening statements Monday.
Dairy farmer Cynthia Daoust said her well water became muddy when Nation Rise began test drilling for the piles that would eventually support the turbines. The well returned to normal soon after, but she worried that once the windmills are built it will become a permanent issue.
“Our well showed effects from the test drilling,” said Daoust. “Imagine the amount of pressure in that part of the aquifer when the enormous base is being built on that site. As the building rises, so will the sway factor … all those vibrations will travel down into the aquifer and that one day of mud will be just the beginning.
“We won’t be able to guarantee food-grade quality water running through our pipes.”
The only expert witness to testify on Monday was engineer Bill Martin, but he was nearly not accepted as an expert at all. Nation Rise’s counsel objected to the fact Martin’s expertise is in industrial fans, not wind turbines. He is also a vocal opponent of wind energy projects when the tribunal’s rules say expert testimony has to be objective. The engineer is not only a member of the anti-turbine group Wind Concerns Ontario, he has also written in the past calling windmills “vertical monsters,” – opinions he was happy to confirm in front of the tribunal.
After deliberating on the issue over the lunch hour, Carter-Whitney decided to accept Martin as a qualified expert on industrial fans and noted his views of the wind energy industry would be factored in when deciding how much weight to give his testimony.
Allowed to proceed, Martin made the argument wind turbines have engineering problems that cause a potential risk to human and animal safety in their vicinity. Like fans, turbines are subject to fatigue over time and by the time that cracks or other warning signs become visible, the equipment is often already on the brink of failing. Because of this, he argued, simply inspecting the turbines for cracks is no guarantee a problem could be caught in time.
This is why industrial fans are kept in housings. Should a catastrophic failure happen, the pieces will not be able to go flying in all directions. Any similar precaution is a practical impossibility for huge free-standing windmills with blades weighing several tons.
Almost every piece of industrial equipment is engineered with safety features for containing worst-case scenarios, regardless of how unlikely they are. But wind turbines are not, said Martin, which makes them a hazard.
“It’s simply not enough to say ‘we’ve gone through all the calculations and therefore it will be okay,'” he said.
The hearings will continue in Finch all this week and into next.
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