I was a member of Town Meeting when we voted to put a wind turbine at our municipal sewage treatment plant to generate electricity. Experts told us it was cost efficient to locate an electric power source next to the biggest user of municipal electricity.
Other experts told Town Meeting that the proposed turbine would generate noise comparable to a running brook at the bottom of a meadow. Proponents of the turbine organized an off-Cape field trip for us to see the type of wind turbine they were proposing. This turbine was next to the high school football field. The geometry teacher used it to teach his classes how to measure elevations. We didn’t feel any vibrations when we touched the tower.
Town Meeting authorized the turbine that was presented in its warrant article.
Then the state offered us a much larger turbine that would generate much more electricity at a lower cost. The state also offered the town a low-cost loan for the purchase and installation. No field trip this time. Town Meeting thought it sounded like a good deal and voted for the change.
Then suddenly there were two of these large turbines available. Did we want the second one? It would be an even better deal for the town because the increased production of electricity would let us pay off the loan from the state more quickly. We voted for this second amendment to the original proposal.
The two turbines worked as promised. But after they had been spinning for a few months, a particular set of residents began to have troubling new health problems and to wonder if they were connected to the way their houses vibrated when the turbines were working. One man even compared the turbines to a jet airplane taking off next to him. Other residents could no longer sit in their yards or invite guests over in the summer. But most residents who lived near the turbines did not notice them at all. They happened to live quite nearby but at slightly lower elevations.
Then a kindergarten teacher asked a parent why her child had become so unhappy and withdrawn. His mother told her that her son was now afraid in his own home. He was afraid of the way the house had started shaking.
Much later we learned that some residents of the town next to the one we had gone to visit on our field trip had reported similar problems. But there had never been any carefully designed scientific studies of that turbine installation, either to establish baseline conditions or to monitor subsequent changes. So those complaints from the neighboring town were just anecdotes. They were not real, scientifically based evidence. The victims were dismissed as “victims.”
Eventually an acoustic engineer came to the property of one of our affected residents. He carefully set up his equipment in a flat area next to the house and measured the decibel levels coming from the spinning turbines. His reading showed the levels were within legally acceptable levels at that spot.
This expert had chosen a place where the sound waves flowed into a flat area, like an ocean wave flowing up into a saltmarsh in Falmouth. But the exact same ocean wave crashing against a granite cliff in Maine (or against the wall of a house) makes a sound like thunder and can even make the ground itself shake.
Only the residents living at specific elevations and angles from our wind turbines were affected by them. But the effects were real and were damaging. The town had unwittingly caused this damage. After a great deal of discussion and debate, the town recognized its responsibility and voted to stop using both turbines. There they stand now, motionless and vaguely threatening while our debt to the state still runs smoothly along.
Judith G. Stetson
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