Sen. Mike Thompson reversed a decision to strike an environmental health scientist’s testimony on wind turbines from the committee’s written record in the interest of remaining compliant with the Kansas Open Records Act, he said Tuesday.
Thompson, chairman of the Senate Utilities Committee, also scaled back his decision to ban Christopher Ollson, who testified last Thursday, from further appearances before the panel. But he urged members of the committee to “be very cautious in how we regard his testimony in the future.”
“I wanted to make sure that everyone knows it is not my intention to avoid the Open Records Act, so we are not banning the testimony from Mr. Ollson, at least online,” Thompson said during a committee meeting Tuesday. “However, due to what I do believe was a misrepresentation of his testimony, that we are going to caution the committee if Mr. Ollson were ever to come back.”
Ollson, who runs a Toronto-based consulting firm, testified Thursday against Senate Bill 353, a measure introduced by Thompson that would establish minimum setbacks for wind turbines near property lines. It would also require wind producers to halt production if noise levels exceeded 35 decibels. Ollson testified at the invitation of Alan Anderson, vice-chairman of the Polsinelli law firm’s energy practice group.
Thompson, a Shawnee Republican and staunch opponent of clean energy, told committee members Monday that Ollson “misrepresented some of the testimony he had in regards to turbine noise.”
Thompson also alleged that Ollson “had misrepresented the truth under oath” in a March 2011 hearing on wind turbine noise in Ontario, Canada. “Because of the unreliability of Mr. Ollson’s testimony, I’m going to ask that it be stricken from the record and I am also going to prevent Mr. Ollson from testifying in the committee again.”
It is unclear what misrepresentations Thompson was referring to. Through an office assistant, he declined to comment. Ollson said Tuesday he believes Thompson was talking about testimony to the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal, in which he said that while wind turbines can cause annoyance if they are placed too close to residences, they do not pose severe health risks. The tribunal determined more research was still needed, Ollson said.
He did not reverse his testimony in that hearing, he said, contrary to what Thompson claimed.
“What concerns me the most is that if the chair of the committee doesn’t agree with testimony, that he somehow feels it’s okay to make these baseless accusations against my professional conduct, I think it might make any other expert in the field think twice before they would agree to appear in front of the committee again,” Ollson said in an interview with The Star Tuesday.
Ollson and Thompson quarreled during the Thursday hearing when Thompson asked about noise produced by wind turbines. Ollson said he conducted research in 2014 that suggested turbine noise should be restricted to around 45 decibels. According to the American Academy of Audiology website, 45 decibels is somewhere between the sound in a quiet library and the sound of moderate rainfall.
He challenged Thompson’s claim that places like Oregon and Germany limit turbine noise to 35 decibels (slightly above a whisper) and that infrasound – sound too low for people to hear – causes cardiovascular disease.
“Germany does not have a 35 decibel sound limit, senator, I can guarantee that is not the case. There are some areas within Germany where that might be applicable, but they actually have sound standards with over 40 decibels,” Ollson told Thompson. “You have 20 years experience here in Kansas of 45, 50 decibels, you don’t have people coming in testifying that they have cardiovascular disease.”
Thompson’s bill would allow landowners to request a decibel reading of the wind turbines and would halt production if the reading was above 35 decibels.
“The levels we’re talking about from wind turbines, absolutely we can measure infrasound low-frequency sounds from wind turbines. I can measure it in the room right now because you have an HVAC system going on,” Ollson said. “We have infrasound, it’s in the room, if any of you drove here, unless any of you live around the block…the infrasound you experience in the car is far greater than you would have, even at a maximum, around a turbine.”
A wind turbine 300 meters from a home will have a sound level of 43 decibels, according to a General Electric report.
Decibel recommendations are based on an equivalent sound level measurement – essentially using a sound reading of a turbine from a certain distance away, and calculating what that decibel level would be at other distances from the turbine, Ollson said. Thompson pushed back on Ollson’s testimony, arguing that using an equivalent sound level for decibel recommendations wasn’t safe.
“So, with regard to the (equivalent sound level), just so the committee understands, if you were stopped by a police officer going 100 miles per hour, you would then argue to the police that your speed was 50 miles per hour because at one point your car was stopped?” Thompson asked Ollson.
“There’s a difference between consistent industrial noise like car noise, traffic noise, and pulses created by a wind turbine,” Thompson continued. “The creation of the infrasound happens at levels that are below the levels of audibility.”
Thompson asked Ollson if he had a degree in acoustics before cutting him off to ask if he were qualified to make a statement about the safety of wind turbines.
“Senator, if you actually look at my testimony, my testimony says you do need proper setbacks, you do need sound limits in order to ensure the safety of public safety,” Ollson responded. “Senator, I don’t mean to argue with you, I really don’t, it is an emotionally charged issue, but it is one that has 20 years of science behind it.”
Ollson has a Ph.D in environmental science.
Thompson and Ollson argued for about ten minutes before Thompson moved on to ask other opponents of the bill questions about their testimony.
The measure is one of several Thompson has introduced this legislative session that would restrict wind energy in Kansas. One bill would require wind turbines to be built on land zoned for industrial use, something industry advocates said would sharply curtail the industry’s growth, especially in the nearly 50 counties in Kansas that are completely unzoned.
The Kansas Legislative Research Department said it isn’t common for bill testimony to be removed from the meeting’s record and for conferrees to be banned from committee hearings. But committee chairs set meeting agendas, and therefore it is in the authority of the chair to do so.
“I do believe that it’s entirely appropriate to debate the merits of science,” Ollson said. “In fact, I encourage it. I just don’t think that, because we disagreed, personal attacks need to be leveled.”
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