Plans are afoot to build one of the world’s largest wind farms in Alberta, Canada. What might this mean for the health and wellbeing of local residents?
An investigation of this very issue has reached some interesting conclusions, including that:
• the scientific and medical literature do not necessarily identify the health issues of concern to local residents
• local context is all important – the issues that concern one community may not be relevant to another.
The piece below, by the consultants who conducted a health impact assessment of the Alberta project, is well worth a read for anyone with an interest in wind farms, rural health, or HIAs more broadly.
Thanks to Murray Lee, Ame-Lia Tamburrini and Marla Orenstein from Habitat Health Impact Consulting, in Calgary, for writing this piece for Croakey readers (and to Ben Harris-Roxas of the HIA Blog for arranging it).
Murray Lee, Ame-Lia Tamburrini and Marla Orenstein write:
Wind energy is rapidly developing throughout the world as power providers and consumers search for greener sources of electricity.
However, despite its greener hue, large wind “farms” make a major impact on local residents. Although the direct health impacts of turbine operation are hotly debated, the concerns expressed by the affected communities are real and the potential health pathways impacted by development are complex.
A recent Croakey discussion demonstrated some of the controversy and highlighted the large gap that exists between what medical sciences suggest ought to be happening and what affected individuals often report.
Health Impact Assessment (HIA) is one tool that can be used to predict the potential impacts of wind power installations. HIA is a systematic approach to investigate and estimate how a development might affect the health of a community, for better and for worse. It has been used extensively throughout the world in resource development projects, urban planning, public policy and many other fields.
While HIA shares many features (and owes much of its existence) to the field of environmental impact assessment, it also has roots in social justice and health equity and from that has developed a strong professional ethic of community consultation. Such consultation is key when it comes to evaluating the contentious and uncertain impact of developments like wind farms. In cases like these, local context is key.
We recently completed an HIA of a large wind farm proposal in southern Alberta, Canada. When fully built out, the installation will be massive – between 250 and 375 turbines spread over 90,000 hectares, producing up to 775 MW of power, one of the largest wind farms in the world. The HIA was conducted as part of an integrated Environment Social and Health Impact Assessment to meet the internal standards of the project proponent; HIA itself is not a local regulatory requirement. As part of a large integrated assessment undertaken by a major multinational firm, we were able to undertake a substantial degree of community consultation and key informant interviews.
To scope health issues we consulted with three different stakeholder groups: local residents, municipal government stakeholders and health and social service providers. Not surprisingly, these groups identified different areas of concern.
More interesting, however, was the difference between the issues identified through consultation with the local community and those we found in the literature, both from completed HIAs of other wind energy installations and those published in the health and scientific literature (see table).
What our HIA clearly demonstrated was that local context undoubtedly determines the scope and valuation of anticipated health impacts.
While some concerns are shared by all groups and have been assessed in previous HIAs of wind farms (e.g. noise), others are specific to one stakeholder group (e.g. childcare) or are unique to this particular region (e.g. restrictions on land use).
Clearly, cultural, socio-economic and physical characteristics of the local area strongly affect both the community’s concerns and the potential health impacts. An HIA of a different wind farm in a different region would have to be scoped differently.
Having known this community for some time, and after spending many hours in community consultation in this HIA, we believe that some of the local contextual factors driving health perceptions and potential impacts include:
• Density: Southern Alberta has a very low residential density in its rural areas; individual turbines and construction activity staging sites have large buffers and few directly affected homes.
• Land use: Land is often viewed by residents primarily as a commodity or revenue generator, as opposed to a visual or cultural resource.
• Remote ownership: Farmers often have their primary residence in town and do not necessarily live on the lands they lease out for turbines.
• Prior framework for resource leasing: There is a long-standing history in Alberta of rural landowners leasing their lands for resource development, such as for oil and gas development or subsurface mineral rights.
This context led to some interesting findings during community consultations. One example is remote ownership of land (farmers who live in town while owning and working land in the surrounding rural area). Remote ownership increases the potential for positive impacts stemming from the income generated by leasing land to turbine operators, while at the same time it decreases the direct impacts from noise and visual disturbance. However, in this setting construction crews and farmers must share the same rural roads to access their worksites, resulting in poorer road conditions and an increased likelihood of motor vehicle accidents.
Another example is the tendency in this region for land to be seen more as a revenue generator than a visual or cultural resource. This perspective led to some unanticipated local concerns about development.
In one case, a discussion of the stringent regulatory restrictions on industrial noise – something that in most regions would be thought to be reassuring to local populations – led to a concern among land owners that the placement of a turbine on their land would restrict their future ability to lease surface drilling rights to oil and gas companies. In this case, the impact of noise on health – the concern we anticipated from the literature – was trumped by a concern that noise regulations themselves would adversely impact potential income.
Such concerns cannot be found in the published scientific literature regarding wind energy installations, nor can they be anticipated from a review of media reports of the response to such developments in other communities. “Wind turbine syndrome”, the contentious and debatable condition that drives much of the resistance to wind farms elsewhere, was not a major concern in this community, one that may soon host one of the largest wind farms on the planet.
To understand and address their actual concerns requires personal experience and a thorough and systematic on-the-ground exploration of the local context. Professional experience and desktop research can supplement, but cannot possibly substitute, this sort of local knowledge.