Year of the Turbines, Part Two
(read Part One)
by Eric Nixon, Hayter-Walden Publications
“Dec 17: Early AM. Neil not sleeping well, me neither.” Monica Elmes wrote those words in her diary back in 2010. It wasn’t until some time later that she realized what had happened the previous day outside her home in Chatham-Kent. After years of preparation and close to nine months of construction, Enbridge Inc. had flicked the switch and started 44 powerful wind turbines turning near the Elmes household. Lack of sleep was just the first symptom for Elmes and her family.
“To me, the visual intrusion is huge but, also, when they started to function, the noise intrusion was way more than I ever thought. When I first saw the map and saw where we were located, I thought, ‘Oh, good, we’re 1.5 km away from the closest one,’” says Elmes. She almost let out a sigh of relief at the time, not expecting the noise would be bothersome. Nothing could be further from the truth. Noise levels today with the turbines operating are often ten times what they were before.
And noise was just the beginning. For the first time in her life, Elmes began experiencing painful earaches. “It was kind of a definitive moment for me when I realized,” she says. At first, she didn’t equate the turbine noise and the ear discomfort. But, one day when the turbines stopped, her ears started popping and crackling – and she realized the increasingly worsening ear pains were being caused by the turning blades.
One of the problems so many people have with turbines is that they’re intermittent and unpredictable. Elmes says, “It’s incredibly variable. There’s times when it’s fine, other than visually. There are other times where it feels like something’s beating you over the head.”
Elmes is fortunate that she’s mostly susceptible only to health issues associated with the audible noise from the turbines. Her spouse, Neil, is a completely different story. “My husband is the one I worry about more, because he seems to be sensitive to what I would assume is non-audible low-frequency noise, so he doesn’t sleep well anymore.”
Elmes has watched her husband change dramatically over the last two years. “You go from someone who is a very calm, together person and to see him where he gets angry and he’s tired and this is just not what he’s ever been any other time,” she says. He takes more sick days from work and, when he gets sick, the illnesses last far longer.
Other nearby residents suffer from headaches, along with a variety of other ailments, often comparing their homes to living in airports. “When the project starts off, I will guarantee there will be some people who know immediately and those are the people that are very sensitive and they will have the headaches and the nausea and that sort of thing, because I’ve seen it in all of the projects,” says Elmes. “Others, it can be six months before they might make a connection.”
For those who don’t believe that wind turbines cause health issues in certain people, Elmes shakes her head in disbelief. “I don’t understand how some people dismiss it – when some people are affected by some things and others aren’t. Not everyone has diabetes, but you don’t deny the fact that there’s diabetes,” she says.
In addition to health issues, Elmes can list numerous other problems that have come to light since the turbines arrived. Dramatic changes to wildlife in the area. Bizarre behaviour by their family pets. Numerous severe stray voltage incidents in the surrounding area that have destroyed appliances and electronics (although, fortunately, the Elmes have been spared this at their home).
After 17 years on the farm property they’ve always loved, the Elmes have finally realized they may have to relocate, as so many others have been forced to do when turbines take over their lives. In one way, they’re fortunate. With crop prices as high as they are currently, they know they could sell their farm and make money. But, what then? Neil lives about an hour from work and says he doesn’t want to have to commute any farther. Unfortunately, any place that’s within a similar commuting distance is already surrounded by wind farms – or will be once proposed ones are built. “It’s a sense of being trapped,” says Elmes.
Other people are in much worse straits. If you don’t own farmland with your rural property, chances are your home’s value has already dropped dramatically. One friend told Elmes, “We put all this money into a home that we don’t think we can sell anymore.” It’s a familiar story across Chatham-Kent and will become an increasingly larger problem in our area, as upwards of 400 proposed turbines are built in the next few years.
One big difficulty with wind turbines is that they’re often located on properties where the landowners don’t live. That causes friction with resident homeowners who don’t have large plots of land or other farmers who have chosen not to sign leases with turbine companies. Where Elmes lives, about 67% of the turbines are located on property where the leaseholder doesn’t live – and many of those same leaseholders don’t even reside in Chatham-Kent. Two nearby turbines are on land owned by someone from the Cambridge area.
Elmes knows that many farmers have benefited financially from the income generated by the wind farms and, for many of them, she understands their reasoning. In the case of several older people in her area, they’ve used the proceeds from the wind farms to build new homes elsewhere.
She also knows of one family that was put under extreme pressure to sign a lease and caved in. The company had told them if they cooperated, the transmission lines for the turbines would go at the back of their property, away from their home. If they didn’t, however, they’d go along the road easement, right over top of their bungalow. The company played them against their neighbours, a common complaint among residents. Elmes says, “I truly feel badly for some of them. For the rest, I don’t think I can ever forgive them.”
This is where the whole problem of “neighbour versus neighbour” arises, something Elmes knows a lot about. After initially being very interested in the idea of wind farms, Elmes began doing more research and voicing concerns with others in her community. After that, she started getting the cold shoulder from many of her neighbours. “Basically, I was excommunicated, because I raised concerns. It’s very, very nasty. I wish it didn’t happen ever to anyone,” she says. However, she does note that, because of the wind turbine issue, she’s actually met different neighbours – those opposed to the farms – who she likely would never had met if the turbines hadn’t gone up in the first place.
On the other side of the fence from the Elmes and the wind power opponents, there are still many who defend the Green Energy Act and believe that wind farms are good for Ontario. Our local municipalities will likely receive several hundred thousand dollars per year as part of a community fund from the wind companies. Elmes admits that, in her area, Enbridge donates to the local Santa Claus Parade and other community events. Some local politicians have termed this “hush money,” given to municipalities to keep them from throwing up roadblocks during development of the projects, but others believe it’s found money they wouldn’t have received without the wind farms.
Even the most enthusiastic supporters of wind projects admit they’re an expensive, unreliable method of producing energy. It’s a realization that Elmes came to almost six years ago. “No matter how many of them go up, you still have to have another means of energy ready on standby for when the wind doesn’t blow. And, as soon as I realized that and that, basically, they are nothing but redundant and that we’re paying for that hugely, that was the point where I went, ‘There are just too many things that are wrong with this.’”
She makes no apologies for her beliefs. “It doesn’t make environmental sense. It doesn’t make economic sense. It certainly doesn’t make sense in the community for anyone,” she says. “This industry is just wrong – completely wrong.”
It’s just one woman’s opinion. One woman who started out in favour of the idea of clean energy produced by the wind, an idea that sounds so good in practice. At a recent Public Information Session held by the Municipality of North Middlesex, Deputy Mayor Chuck Hall said, “I am not opposed to wind energy. I am opposed to wind energy ideas that are not feasible and create health concerns.” That’s Elmes’ point exactly.
In a year or two, all of us will be able to tell our own versions of Elmes’ story. Some people will be affected hugely by the arrival of the hundreds of new turbines in our area. For others, the windmills will likely be just a minor inconvenience. In either case, we’ll all have at least the next two decades to form our own opinions about this new, industrialized world we’ll be living in.
If you’d like to hear more about Monica Elmes’ story, she’ll be one of four guest speakers at a Public Information Session being held by the Middlesex-Lambton Wind Action Group, Tuesday, January 29th at 7:30 p.m. at the Coldstream Community Centre in Ilderton. Other guests include Colette McLean (another Chatham-Kent resident), Richard Wakefield and Grand Bend area realtor Doug Pedlar.