Ontario wind farm health risks downplayed: documents

By Dave Seglins and John Nicol, CBC News Canada

Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment is logging hundreds of health complaints over the province’s 900 wind turbines but has downplayed the problem, according to internal ministry documents obtained by CBC News.

According to 1,000 pages of internal government emails, reports and memos released under Ontario’s Freedom of Information Act, the government scrambled to figure out how to monitor and control noise pollution.

Barbara Ashbee

The documents were released after a lengthy and costly battle waged by Barb Ashbee. Ashbee and her husband Dennis Lormand say they suffered a series of ailments after wind turbines began operating near their home in Amaranth, near Shelburne, northwest of Toronto. The area is now home to 133 wind turbines — the largest industrial wind farm in the province.

After being told theirs was the only complaint in the area, Ashbee and Lormond learned that MOE officials at the Guelph District Office had been tracking more than 200 complaints dating back to 2006 when the wind farm first started operating.

Their home was bought out by Canadian Hydro Developers (now Transalta) in June 2009, one of six homeowners who sold their houses to the utility company. Each seller had to sign confidentiality agreements. But the Lormands have risked legal repercussions by breaking their silence and speaking exclusively to CBC News this week. They said they want to warn the public about what they claim are the dangers of living near wind turbines and the supposed breakdowns in government monitoring.

“We were silent. I wouldn’t say boo to anybody. But the longer this goes on, nobody’s doing anything! And now we have an (Ontario) election two weeks away. Nobody understands what’s going on out here.”

Sleepless nights sparked activism

“It was terrible—we’d go nights in a row with no sleep,” said Ashbee. “It was a combination of the loud noise—the decibel, audible noise—and also this vibration that was in the house that would go up and it would go down.”

The couple moved into their home in December 2008 just as the wind farm became operational. But they said they immediately noted a loud swooshing noise from nearby turbines and a persistent, unexplained hum resonating in their home.

Ashbee said she called the power company and the environment ministry night after night and was initially told by government enforcement officers that hers was the only complaint in the area.

“We were told [the wind company] was running in compliance, that there were no problems.

“We’d just have to get used to it.”

But she said the Ministry of Environment (MOE) was misleading her, and that there had been hundreds of complaints.

Ashbee launched a lengthy battle using Ontario’s Freedom of Information Act and eventually received more than 1,000 pages of internal MOE correspondence.

Acccording to the documents, government staff downplayed the problem while scrambling to understand and control wind turbine noise pollution.

MOE officers warn supervisor

According to the documents, MOE field officer Garry Tomlinson was slow to process Ashbee’s noise complaints. But he began trying to conduct his own noise monitoring tests when confronted with many more complaints and consultants reports by Canadian Hydro Developers that revealed noise violations.

Tomlinson consulted acoustics specialists at Ryerson University and within the MOE. He concluded and warned his supervisors that the ministry “currently has no approved methodology for field measurement of the noise emissions from multiple [turbines]. As such there is no way for MOE Field staff (and I would submit anyone else) to confirm compliance or lack thereof.”

Tomlinson also gave a tour to two assistant deputy ministers Paul Evans and Paul French on May 1, 2009, advising them of the problems they were encountering.

Ministry officials at the Guelph office, including manager Jane Glassco, attended community meetings in Melancthon and Amaranth townships in the summer of 2009, where Glassco acknowledged people were “suffering” and that many were claiming to have been forced out of their homes due to noise pollution.

By 2010, other staff at the Guelph office were warning officials at the ministry headquarters in Toronto that the computer modelling used to establish Ontario’s wind turbine noise limits and safe “set back distances” for wind turbines was flawed and inadequate.

Cameron Hall a fellow field officer at the MOE in Guelph wrote to his managers warning that the province was failing to properly account for the “swooshing sounds.”

CBC News presented some of the ministry documents to Ramani Ramakrishnan, a Ryerson University professor and acoustics specialist who has written several reports and conducts noise pollution training for MOE staff.

Ramakrishnan has recommended to the MOE that wind turbines in rural areas should have far stricter limits but says if the province enforced the regulations – it would have a major impact on wind farms around the province.

“First implication,” Ramakrishnan says, “is that the number of wind turbines in wind-farms would have to be reduced considerably and wind-farm developers would have to look for localities where they are not impacting the neighbourhood.

“A five-decibel reduction in acceptable noise is quite noticeable and perceptible” and the MOE field staff are recommending up to 10 decibel reductions in some cases.

Ashbee, who is returning to her old job as a real estate agent, said there are several people near turbines who won’t speak for fear that their land values will go down.

Her husband Dennis doesn’t blame the wind turbine company:

“It’s our government that backs it up. It’s the government that’s making people sick and forcing them out of their homes. And it’s all being suppressed.”

CBC News repeatedly requested an interview with Ontario’s Environment Minister John Wilkinson, who is also engaged in a provincial election campaign seeking re-election as MPP for the riding of Perth-Wellington. Those requests were denied.

Transalta, who took over the company that bought out the Ashbee-Lormand home, told CBC News in a statement that such confidentiality agreements are standard, designed to protect the privacy of both sides. Neither the company nor the couple would discuss the $300,000 price listed on local land registry records as being the amount for which the couple’s home was transferred to the power company.

Document highlights

Ashbee and Lormond learned that MOE officials at the Guelph District Office had been tracking more than 200 complaints dating back to 2006 when the wind farm first started operating.

MOE officials repeatedly told the couple in early 2009 that the power company (Canadian Hydro Developers) were in compliance with the law yet the company’s own consultants report sent to the MOE concluded noise pollution from the turbines was generally higher than Ontario’s limits.

MOE field officers in Guelph in 2009 scrambled to learn more about how to properly record and test audible noise levels and low frequency sound. They warned superiors that Ontario’s noise pollution models are filled with errors, that they lacked a proper methodology for monitoring (and thus enforcing) noise levels from turbines.

MOE field officers and the acoustics specialists they hired repeatedly warned the province in 2009 and 2010 that there needed to be stricter noise pollution limits in rural areas, and in wind turbine environments where there is cyclical or tonal “swooshing sounds.”

Tips on this story? Please send to Dave.Seglins@cbc.ca or John.Nicol@cbc.ca

14 thoughts on “Ontario wind farm health risks downplayed: documents

  1. And so, the MOE, once regarded as a credible objective body, is now being influenced by the liberals. This scum soils everything it touches.

  2. Dalton McGuinty, the liberals, MOE all NEED to be held responsible.Voting them out on Oct. 6 just isnt enough…

  3. Maybe the people at the CBC have decided to do their job of reporting the news — instead of making the news by ignoring the news. We can hope.

  4. The reader comments that follow the story on the CBC website are rather disappointing (as of yesterday evening, at least). Very few commenters show any sympathy for people who are suffering ill effects from the IWT’s. Many are quite ignorant of the facts or don’t seem to care. We have a long way to go to educate the CBC audience !

  5. Here’s a comment I just submitted at http://www.cleanbreak.ca, in response to a post by Tom Rand of Cleantech MaRS. (We’ll see if the comment is censored out.)

    Once again, health concerns summarily dismissed. They may be real, they may be not. Here’s a suggestion:

    Why not have a Big Brother-like pajama party of at least one week in duration, held at one or more of the possibly-affected households and for all the prominent pro-wind advocates who say the health concerns are hogwash ?

    Tom Rand, Christopher Stevens, Robert Hornung, David Suzuki, Tyler Hamilton, Martin Regg Cohn … the list goes on.

  6. If the Windsor Star and other newspapers will not carry this story, it is up to us to send it by email to everyone in Ontario, in every riding in Ontario. Send it to your email contact list with a request that the recipient passes it on to their contact list immediately. It needs to go viral and very quickly. We are running out of time to get the truth out about the Liberals and their cover-up of this very serious situation.

  7. I’ve posted on this at http://windfarmrealities.org/?p=1291 and included links to Barbara’s earlier letters pleading for relief, a letter from John Harrison written in response to CBC’s effort to contact him, and the results of the noise studies at her home.

    There really is no excuse for a government to act this way – destroy people’s homes and then cover it up while continuing to destroy additional homes. Those of us who have been involved in this fight for several years have long been aware of this travesty – and Jutta stills wants to have polite discussions. I’m sorry, but we tried polite discussions that ended up going nowhere, and the time for polite discussions is really over.

  8. I do not know how many readers have followed the comments on the CBC BUT! It seems to me that the average liberal CBC viewer is a hard-hearted suspicious soul.

    Based on my reading of many of the comments many people did not read and retain the points in the article and were complaining about issues — but had the sense of the facts reversed or the time lines wrong.

    I suggest that everyone in this group read the comments for a serious education on how people are misinformed, and how they will not even read the facts as CBC presented them. Some viewers even got the time line wrong — accusing Barbara of having bought the house AFTER the turbines were installed — and then she complained — or so they said. That is particularly sad and disconcerting as the story showed that the opposite was true — that she was there and THEN the turbines were installed.

    People also do not understand that the countryside has an ambient noise level of about 20dBA to 25dBA. The wind turbines introduce and additional 20db to 30db of noise.

    According to many CBC readers is a greedy money grubber who “set up” the IWT company for a big payout and she should just get used to the noise — like people who live near freeways.

    Now, the story seemed accurate as I understand the facts of her case — but then I do not know much beyond what was in the story.

    Pretty sad!

  9. Here are some pretty uncivil comments…

    Bad Tiger aSaid:
    The couple moved into their home in December 2008 just as the wind farm became operational. But they said they immediately noted a loud swooshing noise from nearby turbines and a persistent, unexplained hum resonating in their home
    The story says it became operational in 2006. But despite that fact.. If there were turbines when they moved in and they did not do due diligence. Maybe this is their problem. I mean do you buy a house next to the airport and them 3 years later complain of the constant noise from jets??

    Get real people… brains are obviously not required to purchase a house!

    …and the truth?????

    Barabara said:
    The couple bought their home in 2005 and began renovations. In December 2008 when the wind farm became operational, they imediately noted a loud swooshing noise from nearby turbines and a persistent, unexplained hum resonating in their home.

    dw1985 said:
    I don’t understand… If the company bought out their houses, then why are they still there?? Not saying they should be forced to move… I’m just genuinely confused…

    Obviously from now on the government needs to implement a minimum distance of seperation between these wind farms and residential areas. In a country as vast as Canada, I don’t think that would be so difficult to manage. It’s still a great technology, so something like this shouldn’t stand in its way!

    I dunno Barbara do you still live there? I though you moved… Just askin’…

    What should stand in the way of IWTs? Should we chain ourselves to the parts of the next installation?

  10. It may be windies trying to confuse the message. CBC; who would have thought…

    • People have been fed a steady diet of news that IWTs don’t cause health problems. Then suddenly they hear a repot that IWTs can cause health problems. Is it any wonder people would be confused? First time they heard information like this!

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