Ontario’s Green Energy Act was “an awful, awful” piece of legislation, Premier Doug Ford has emphatically pronounced, a stance that probably helped to elect him in 2018.
“All of a sudden, you wake up and there are 100 windmills in the backyard. That was absolutely ridiculous.”
Well, to paraphrase the boss, the Township of North Stormont is waking up to the “absolutely ridiculous” in 2019 and wondering if the premier’s government can see what’s blowing in their wind: suspicion, anger and betrayal.
Nation Rise Wind Farm consists of 29 large wind turbines – close to 200 metres high, blade included, or like a 60-storey building – set out in farm country near the villages of Crysler and Berwick. The 100-megawatt project is being built by EDP Renewables, a subsidiary of a multinational with North American headquarters in Texas.
The timing here is important. Though in the works for years (there was a contract award in 2016) the project received its “Renewable Energy Approval” on May 4, 2018, a Friday. The following Wednesday, May 9, the election writ was dropped and on June 7, the Liberals and their Green Energy ways were gone. In July, the Ford government cancelled 758 early-stage renewable energy projects.
But not Nation Rise. Described as too far along in its milestones, it went ahead and today there are service roads being built, massive concrete bases being poured and the blades and hubs are being stockpiled for installation.
It is precisely the kind of process the Ford government detested: the township council twice voted against being a “willing host”; a determined number of vocal citizens opposed it; concerns about health, the environment and water quality were basically dismissed as a bunch of alarmist baloney.
“It’s criminal negligence to allow this project to proceed, knowing what they know,” says Ruby Mekker, 68, a retired educator and one of the project’s most vocal opponents. “Doug Ford shook my hand. He said, ‘Turbines are done’.”
Mekker was one of several people, led by the Concerned Citizens of North Stormont, who appeared before the Environmental Review Tribunal with the faint hope of stopping the project – by first delaying it – until the Ford wagons could circle.
It didn’t work. The Concerned Citizens have now appealed that January loss to the Minister of Energy. They don’t hold out much hope.
The hearing, which had nine days of evidence, crystallizes the problem that lay people have in fighting big wind farms. EDP, for instance, has done everything the government asked of it, including noise models, a wildlife analysis, geological work, and following regulated setbacks of 550 metres from the nearest house.
It is also investing about $160 million, creating employment, adding to the clean energy pot and making sizable lease payments to a small number of landowners. And the science, at least the “establishment” science, is on their side.
The rules, meanwhile, are stacked against ordinary citizens. At the tribunal, the opponents were told that to meet the “legal test,” the onus was on them to prove – yes, prove – the wind farm would have serious health effects on nearby residents, or their natural environment.
Of course, they couldn’t. All they really have is anecdotal evidence and many cases of “correlation,” or health and well-water problems that crop up in suspicious proximity (distance and time) to turbine activity.
Concerned Citizens chair Margaret Benke, 63, a retired principal and lifelong resident of the area, was asked if opponents felt like they were viewed as a bunch of “kooks” who just don’t get it.
“Of course,” she said Thursday. The attitude, she elaborated, is: “We know, you don’t, we’re smart, you’re dumb, we’re big, you’re small.”
What Benke and others know, however, especially, from experiences in other parts of Ontario, is that the noise from big wind turbines is often an annoyance, that there is suspicion that vibrations are affecting the soil and possibly livestock and that wells could be affected both by digging the infrastructure and a constantly humming terrain.
(It is, indeed, a deep rabbit hole: what about so-called infrasound, stuff we can’t hear?; or shadow flickers, ice tossing from the blades; the effect on birds, bats, cows; the leaking of voltage into the ground.) On top of which, opponents say, Ontario doesn’t even need more power production.
In an oft-cited study that is being read different ways, Health Canada reported in 2014 that 16.5 per cent of respondents were “highly annoyed” when the turbine noise was at its highest level, but the investigation found no links to major health impacts.
And there is another important consideration. The project has created divisions in the community. “It has created an incredible rift,” said Benke, “and it is only just beginning.”
Though handed a “bitter pill,” Mayor Jim Wert remains optimistic about the long-term outcome.
“We’re a very rural area and our strength of community is one of our biggest assets,” he said. “I’m very confident we’re going to come through the other side of this just fine but, right now, we’re in choppy waters, for sure.”
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