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Neighbours suing Gippsland wind farm in Supreme Court over ‘excessive noise’

The operator of a Victorian wind farm being sued by neighbours for allegedly emitting excessive noise says its turbines have a mechanical issue which create a distinctive sound.

Two neighbours of the Bald Hills wind farm at Tarwin Lower in Gippsland, John Zakula and Noel Uren, are seeking civil damages in the Victorian Supreme Court.

They claim the noise is excessive and they also want the wind turbines turned down or off at certain times.

The court was told that Mr Zakula sleeps in his car away from his property to escape the turbines’ noise.

The court will determine whether the noise from the site is a nuisance.

James Arthur, a director at Infrastructure Capital Group, which manages the wind farm, told the court he’d known about a tonality problem with the turbines since April 2017 when acoustic contractor Marshal Day Acoustics alerted them.

This was later verified by manufacturer Senvion, which found a faulty gearbox caused the tonality, and likely affected most of the 52 turbines.

An email dated April 13, 2017 from the German-based manufacturer said testing had revealed “multiple or harmonic” tones and this “wasn’t ideal”.

Mr Arthur agreed the tonality could be classified as “special audible characteristics”, something Mr Zakula had complained about in letters from October and November 2016.

It was also revealed the wind farm received a payment from the Senvion, because the gearbox problem breached its noise guarantee.

But Mr Arthur said they didn’t inform the plaintiffs.

He told the court “tonality wasn’t an issue” at the plaintiffs’ properties and said the company had been transparent about the problem.

‘Noise complaints’ removed from report

The court was shown a report from the company, Vestas, about the turbine’s gearbox problems, dated September 2020.

It included a slideshow presentation sent to Infrastructure Capital Group.

It noted the “gearbox tonality issue” had “generated noise complaints from the community”.

Mr Arthur told the court, “factually, I don’t think that statement is absolutely correct”.

The court heard that at ICG’s request the lines about the noise complaints were removed from the presentation.

Voicemail messages

Mr Arthur oversaw the wind farm’s complaints process from May 2017, and said when he started in the role he read the company’s complaints log which had “hundreds” of entries.

These entries were mainly a summary of phone voicemail messages.

He told the court he had not listened to many of the voicemails, which was the primary way locals could inform the wind farm of their concerns at the time.

“I may have listened to one or two of them, but generally that role was fulfilled by other people within ICG,” he said.

Despite numerous complaints since 2015 by Mr Zakula and Mr Uren, Mr Arthur had never visited their properties or directed anyone in his company to do so.

Sleeping in the car

Mr Arthur was asked whether the company had a strategy of ignoring neighbours’ complaints, while they were waiting for the government to approve their noise compliance.

Mr Arthur said he wasn’t aware of that, but said that at the time he had been speaking to Mr Uren “on the phone quite regularly”.

Mr Arthur told the court he was aware Mr Zakula often slept in his car away from his property, claiming the wind farm noise made him unable to sleep.

“I really can’t say whether the wind farm is the cause or not,” Mr Arthur said.

He said the company had investigated Mr Zakula’s and Mr Uren’s complaints since 2017.

He said “there was no issue to be found”, but steps had been taken on a noise lowering strategy on at least one turbine near Mr Zakula’s house.

Mr Arthur agreed that a 2018 South Gippsland Council report had found the wind farm noise was a nuisance under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act.

Despite the wind farm’s managing company mounting a Supreme Court challenge to this finding which they ultimately lost, the company had been forced to accept this outcome.

Key witness dies during trial

On Thursday, the trial opened with the news that the certified valuer hired by the plaintiffs to provide evidence about land values, Gerard McMahon of CBRE, had unexpectedly died last week.

“It’s a very unfortunate and most unexpected development, especially to find it out in the middle of a trial,” Justice Melinda Richards said.

The trial is expected to continue into the middle of next week.