by Lindsay Kelly, The Manitoulin Expositor
LITTLE CURRENT-The United Chiefs and Councils of Manitoulin (UCCM) made a clear stand against the Northland Power wind farm at a public meeting on Monday night, declaring their continued opposition to the project until appropriate consultation has been made with Island First Nations.
A legal requirement of the Ontario government, as proclaimed by the Supreme Court of Canada, consultation “has been ignored and continues to be ignored,” said Shining Turtle, Whitefish River First Nation chief and UCCM tribal chair, reading from a statement prepared in advance by the UCCM. “As long as the government of Ontario continues to ignore the First Nations, the chiefs will remain opposed to the project.”
Repeated requests for discussions with the First Nations have gone unheeded, the UCCM contends, yet the chiefs remain willing to co-operate on the many outstanding issues on Manitoulin, Chief Shining Turtle said. In the meantime, the chiefs “now have no option but to oppose development on Manitoulin Island.”
Northland Power president John Brace responded by indicating that the company welcomes the opportunity to sit down to negotiations with the First Nations.
“It was clear to me from what you said that there are issues that are primarily focussed on the Ontario government,” he said. “We sincerely want to take you up on your statement of sitting down and talking and going through the appropriate processes of working with the First Nations associated with the project, just as we want to sit down and work with the non-First Nations people on this project.”
The issue, say the chiefs, could be solved easily by simply sitting down with the province to undergo negotiations, and the UCCM has established a Consultation and Accommodation Framework table, which outlines how resolution can be achieved. “It’s a very simple process,” said Chief Shining Turtle, noting that even though Wikwemikong was not present at the meeting, that First Nation remains in support of its fellow reserves.
Through this process, the chief is optimistic that issues such as the long- and short-term impacts of the turbine project, as well as the health impacts, could be addressed, if only the province would sit down to discuss them. The chiefs “again invite interested parties and representatives to come to the table and settle all concerns and grievances,” the UCCM statement concluded.
Northland Power project manager Rick Martin said the company recognizes the frustrations the UCCM feels regarding the need for consultation but suggested that the duty to consult has been placed on the company, and it is eager to engage the First Nations affected by the project.
“We’re trying hard to establish meaningful consultation with the First Nations,” he emphasized. “There are some items with that process that are certainly difficult to address, as the First Nations feel there’s a duty to consult with the Crown. We recognize that and respect their feelings about that; at the same time, the duty to consult has been assigned to us and it’s something we have an obligation to attempt to address.”
But the Northland project continues to irk more than just Island First Nations. Ray Beaudry, who is a founding member of the Manitoulin Coalition for Safe Energy Alternatives (MCSEA), was angry that a recent decision about the definition of a receptor-which his group had argued should include hunt camps-has been altered in favour of the wind industry.
Late last year, residents opposed to the project began taking out building permits in an effort to stall or shut down the project, which would span a wide swath of land outside Little Current, encompassing McLean’s Mountain and the bluff above Honora Bay. If a dwelling was going to be built on a piece of land, the theory went, Northland would have to maintain the required 550-metre setbacks and the project would have to be altered.
But this newest definition, released by to Northland via letter from Doris Dumais, director of the Ministry of the Environment’s (MOE) approvals branch last Friday, removes any possibility that the permits will affect the project’s outcome.
“It does not seem likely that these buildings will be used for overnight accommodation and thus will not be considered noise receptors,” writes Ms. Dumais, who goes on to say that the MOE expects public consultation to take place regarding this issue.
In a follow-up letter issued on Monday, Ms. Dumais further elaborates, noting that the initial definition for a noise receptor was not intended to apply to hunt camps, or other buildings used temporarily.
“The main purpose of establishing the setback prohibitions in sections 54 and 55 or O.Reg 359/09 was in consideration of long-term exposure to noise,” she writes. “Given the temporary use of hunt camps, there is limited potential for long-term exposure to noise from wind turbines or transformers.”
It is also noted that for vacant land, the setback point begins at the centre of the land.
But Mr. Beaudry argues that the MOE changed these regulations after the public complained about the setback distances, and that with “every item we identified, the minister of the environment, with Northland Power, changed the rules to suit the wind company.”
“It’s very upsetting,” he said, “especially for people with hunt camps.”
Mr. Martin acknowledged the earlier tactic by residents to take out building permits as a way to “close the project down, or set it back,” but he said he personally asked for clarification on the definition of a receptor due to inconsistency about it in the past.
“There’s been some variation on how it’s been described in the past,” he said. “It’s been a dwelling, it’s been a residence, it’s been a variety of different things and the last description was an overnight residence, and so the question became do seasonal camps and hunt camps be considered residences?”
Clarification was required for determining turbine layout, he said, and more consultation will be done before any final decisions are made.
“We have to talk to owners of camps and get historical usage-that will be part of our renewable energy approvals process-but there seems to be some clarification on what a receptor really is,” he added.
Calling it “administrative and procedural unfairness,” Mr. Beaudry said the landowners will now review the criteria brought forward by the ministry and ensure their hunt camps and seasonal dwellings fit the description.
He also maintains that the ministry does not indicate what will happen for people who want to build on their land in the future. Landowners along Perch Lake sideroad are uncertain whether they will be issued a building permit, and guaranteed safety, if they want to build after the turbines go up.
“That responsibility is going to fall on the municipality, whether they issue you a building permit or not, but Northland Power is saying it’s okay to build there,” he said. “It’s not their call; it’s going to be the municipality.”
The entire process is sketchy, according to Al Ryan, who views the varying reports from Northland over the life of the project as suspicious.
“Since June I’ve been able to download four different maps showing the locations of the turbines on McLean’s Mountain, and tonight there’s a fifth map on the table that has a brand-new turbine on it,” he said. “So the consistency of these locations keeps altering all the time, and from application to application. I would be wary no matter where you are on McLean’s Mountain where a turbine might actually be located when it’s finally finalized.”
Mr. Martin contends, however, that “we’re actually down a turbine or two,” and emphasizes that “turbines have been moved from various areas to both meet the REA (Renewable Energy Act) requirements and the noise setbacks, as per the REA requirements, and we’ve been listening to the comments that people have been making and the concerns.”
Mr. Beaudry vows that MCSEA and fellow concerned landowners will not end their lobby here. They plan to follow up to make sure the issue of building on vacant land is recognized by the MOE, as well as ensure that current hunt camp owners aren’t left in the cold.
Overall, he was disappointed with the procedural hurdles he says the group has had to face time and again just to be dealt with fairly and appropriately.
“We identified the issues, and we had to go through the process, but it’s hard to get answers,” he lamented. “We can’t seem to get answers; the wind company gets the answers before the public does, so how can we respond to it? The legislation and the commissions will be given before we have a chance to do something about it to protect our land.”
Though the detractors may have been more vocal Monday night, the project still maintains a steady level of supporters as well. Landowner Brad Wilkin, who has between four and five wind turbines proposed for his land, believes this is an excellent way in which to boost the economies of Little Current and the Island as a whole.
“They want economic development and here it’s going to be over a million dollars pumped into the economy,” he reasoned. “So you put in a multiplier effect of even four-that’s $4 million.”
For an economically depressed area like Manitoulin, the influx of tax dollars, the promise of jobs and the potential boost to tourism all point to the project as being a success. He suggests that the negative aspects alleged about wind turbine projects have been grossly exaggerated, and that a more balanced approach is required for the project.
“One of the things, always, is you’ve got to be a little optimistic,” he argued. “When you go around and check on the Internet and pick out all the bad stuff and throw out all the good stuff, you get a very jaundiced view of it; there are both sides to the story.”
The very day of the meeting, Mr. Wilkin said a Northland representative on his land measured the wind at 47 decibels without, to his mind, a negative audible effect. The government-regulated noise level is acceptable at a level of 40 decibels, so “if the wind is blowing at 47, how are you going to hear it at 40?” he reasoned.
The information presented at Monday’s meeting and the discussions surrounding it simply reinforced his belief that the wind project will be a benefit to the community, and he points to the in-depth research done by Northland, as well as first-hand field trips to wind farms in the US, PEI and southern Ontario, where farmers who had turbines on their properties “will tell you it’s the best thing they’ve ever had.”
“People say they’re going to scare away tourists,” he said, “but when we went to PEI to check the wind farm there, lo and behold, they told us that they had to build a restaurant there because so many people were coming to see it.”
He hopes that a similar scenario will play out on Manitoulin, along with the needed jobs that the project would provide.
“Everybody has to leave the Island for jobs and then they come back and retire,” he said. “It would be nice to keep some of our young people right here.”
Following the consultation on Monday, the company will gather the comments received and do a final tweaking of its plan before submitting it to the province for approval in April. From there, Mr. Martin noted, Northland will provide any clarification requested by the MOE and await a feed-in-tariff contract from the Ontario Power Authority before moving forward.
While he was pleased with the turnout for the meeting, and optimistic for future positive dialogue with First Nations, the community, and landowners, he is encouraging further discussions and said he is open to meeting and talking with anyone at any time.
He’s confident that, if the naysayers are given time, they will see the project as less intrusive than they initially believed it to be, and said he earnestly looks forward to maintaining a positive, beneficial relationship with community.
“In time, I would hope that the community and the company work together and realize the economic benefits for the community, for the farmers, the new jobs being developed in the area, and when it’s all said and done that everybody appreciates the efforts we did despite the negativity that was in the community.”