Strategic Health Impact Assessment on Wind Energy Development In Oregon Prepared By: Health Impact Assessment Program Research and Education Services, Office of Environmental Public Health, Public Health Division, Oregon Health Authority
By Kathy Aney, East Oregonian
21 March 2012 ~~Everything from vertigo to sleep deprivation, migraines, heart disease, stress and tinnitus has been blamed on wind farms. The Oregon Health Authority Office of Environmental Public Health spent more than a year investigating whether living close to wind turbines damages personal health or brings discord into a community. The results appear in a recently released 134-page health impact assessment.
Tuesday, the health authority at a hearing at the Umatilla County Justice Center gathered public comment on the report. Another session is scheduled from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday in Bend.
About 25 people turned up in Pendleton to provide feedback.
The public health study involved community listening sessions in Pendleton, Arlington and La Grande, collected online questionnaire data and reviewed existing studies to get a picture of health risks of living near wind farms. Jae Douglas, the study’s principal investigator, described wind energy development as “a fast moving train.”
“Wind energy has been expanding rapidly for a number of years,” she said. “There’s no reason to think it’s going to stop expanding, especially across the West.”
Wind power production in Oregon grew from 25 megawatts in 1999 to 2,104 megawatts in 2010.
Some health effects are quantifiable, while others are complex and harder to quantify, the assessment discovered.
At certain decibel levels, wind farm noise can disturb sleep and trigger stress. Turbine noise, the report said, “is more noticeable, annoying and disturbing than other community or industrial sounds at the same level of loudness.”
That’s likely because turbines produce fluctuating sounds that are generally perceived as more annoying. One man at the session who lives less than a mile from seven turbines said the noise keeps him awake at night, making him jumpy and hyper-vigilant, “like being in combat.” The man, who didn’t want to give his name because of pending litigation, uses white noise to mask the turbines.
One European study suggested that serious health effects showed up at 40-55 decibels and increased above 55. The report recommended limiting turbine noise to 36 decibels or lower and restricting the increase in noise to no more than 10 decibels above existing background levels.
Land owners could choose to waive the 36 decibels maximum, but couldn’t top 50 decibels.
The measures could ward off potential health impacts that include chronic stress, cardiovascular disease, decreased immune function, endocrine disorders, mental illness and a lowered quality of life.
The health authority report also considered visual effects such as shadow flicker, caused by rotating turbine blades. Researchers found little evidence of health effects caused by shadow flicker. The assessment also examined whether economic effects and community conflict over wind farms could affect health. Some attending the session agreed that conflict over turbines causes angst.
“Wind turbines cause heartburn in a community,” said Robin Severe of Helix. “I don’t begrudge a landowner earning money off his ground, as long as it doesn’t affect his neighbor.”
Severe said he lives about 1.8 miles from the closest turbine. They are popping up all around his property. Soon, he said, “we will be completely surrounded.”
Ryan Stoner of Blue Mountain Alliance, a group that advocates for keeping the mountain viewshed free of wind turbines, lamented that turbines have become a bone of contention.
“Friendly farmers have turned into enemies over wind turbines going up on neighboring properties,” he said.
Heppner resident John Kilkenny said wind developers have learned from the public outcry and that setbacks will solve the noise issue. “Developers are so sensitive to the noise issue that I don’t think you are going to see a gray area,” he said. “We’re assuming no one’s learned anything in the last three years. Everyone has learned a lot.” Douglas said the assessment is only a guide to help decision makers.
“Wind energy is an emerging and growing field,” she said. “Decision makers are grappling with what they are hearing. This is complex on so many different levels.”