I attended the Public Service Board’s noise workshop in Morrisville a few weeks ago. The board is trying to determine if the noise standards for energy projects are adequate. The purpose of the workshop was to hear from people who have been affected by energy projects.
The board heard from 44 people. Each talked about the Sheffield, Lowell or Georgia Mountain wind projects. It was quite apparent that the turbines have done severe and long-lasting damage to each of these communities.
Nineteen of the 44 speakers said the turbines do not affect them. Most of these 19 said they lived over a mile away from the nearest turbine, can’t hear them and suffer no ill effects from them. Some of the 19 described taking the trouble to drive closer to the turbines or venture near them on snowmobiles. They listened, determined that it wasn’t so bad and went back home where they could no longer hear them.
Lowell’s treasurer spoke about the joy of a 30 percent reduction in property taxes. Other speakers had financial interests in wind turbines that went beyond property tax reductions. The woman who arranges Green Mountain Power’s tours of the Lowell facility testified to the silence of the turbines. So did several of her neighbors and family members.
An employee of Vestas (the Danish turbine manufacturer) who lives and works in Lowell testified that he hears the turbines only once in a while. They don’t bother him.
The would-be developer of the failed Seneca Mountain Wind project testified. He can’t hear any turbines. He brought his mother and father. They both testified that they can’t hear the turbines at their home, 3 miles from the Sheffield project.
If many of these speakers seemed rehearsed, voiced similar themes and used the same phrases, it might have been the result of a pre-workshop session that GMP and Georgia Mountain Community Wind convened with their boosters at a local restaurant.
Some of the boosters were eager to describe the experience, motivations and psychology of their neighbors. If their neighbors were complaining about health impacts, it was because they just don’t like looking at the turbines. It’s all in their heads. It’s their own fault.
Neighbors who have been affected by the turbines spoke too. They didn’t say much about their tax breaks. They focused instead on the headaches, sleeplessness and depression that began after the turbines started operating. Most of them live very close to the turbines — within a mile. One neighbor was heckled as she described the health impacts on her family. She said she had not opposed the wind project and it took her months to make the connection between her family’s health problems and turbine operations.
Another woman described an online support group for sick turbine neighbors. She told how a wind developer had intruded upon the group with postings that insulted, mocked and taunted his neighbors.
The Georgia Mountain Wind project website says, “We look forward to being a good neighbor and actively participating in the community.” Well, maybe not so much.
Blaming turbine neighbors for their illnesses is not the sole province of the greedy, insensitive and mean-spirited. It’s state policy. Here’s how Vermont Department of Health official William Irwin explained the department’s view to a legislative committee:
“The fact that they can hear it annoys them and it has a different sound so it will be discernible above all the others, and that’s like the dripping faucet. … It’s their attitude about the sound. … If you can change that, it may help.”
So, people who are sick have an attitude problem. The department arrived at this conclusion without visiting the turbine neighbors, examining them or even talking to them. Their position is that if an industrial wind project operates within the department’s noise guidelines, then the neighbors will not suffer adverse impacts. There are three problems with this:
1. Nobody monitors the wind projects to assure compliance with department guidelines.
2. The guidelines are looser than the World Health Organization guidelines that the department claims to follow.
3. The guidelines consider only audible noise and ignore other operational effects, like shadow flicker, inaudible infrasound and barometric waves.
The public health community has a long-standing tradition of dismissing health complaints that it did not understand or did not want to understand. How long did it take for the government to tackle tobacco? Or AIDs? After all, why offend important campaign donors? Why go out on a limb for those with little clout?
Is it impossible to imagine turbine-related health impacts following a trajectory like Lyme disease? Lyme disease used to be the fault of the sufferer — until it wasn’t. See if this rings a bell. A doctor posted it on a Lyme website:
“In their hubris, doctors who have no idea what is causing the situation or how to treat it would rather pretend it doesn’t exist. This excuses them, in their own minds, from the responsibility to do something about it. Doctors find a way to rationalize the fact that there is an illness they haven’t the foggiest idea of how to treat and so they blame the victim.”
Why is it OK for Vermont’s Department of Health to blame the turbine neighbors for their illnesses? It must be, because it’s OK with the governor. It must be, because it’s OK with the Legislature. Is it OK with you?
There’s an election campaign coming up. Candidates will be asking you for your vote. Ask them where they stand on blaming the victim.
Mark Whitworth is director of Energize Vermont, a statewide nonprofit that advocates on renewable energy issues.MORE IN Commentary
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