Skeptics grill environment minister
A detailed presentation of the approval process for wind turbines in Ontario orchestrated by Environment Minister John Wilkinson seemed to bring clarity to Perth County councillors, but skeptics weren't convinced existing regulations are enough.
Councillors Walter McKenzie and Bill French, who were among councillors questioning Wilkinson Thursday on behalf on constituents, said afterwards they felt the session was informative and useful.
French said he was "generally pleased" and clearer about where municipalities fit into the process, but commented that when the Green Energy Act was being formulated, "We were sort of left out of that."
Wilkinson emphasized repeatedly the MOE's mandate is "to protect human health and the natural environment" and pointed out the ministry has the power to ensure compliance with regulations and shut down renewable energy operators that don't comply.
"We are responding to complaints and enforcing regulations," he said.
Questioned by councillors about possible health effects from noise levels below the maximum 40 decibels allowed at the house or school closest to a large wind turbine, Wilkinson said it's important for people to participate in approvals and to keep the ministry informed about their experience.
"We are always open to new information that becomes available," he said, making reference to changes in smoking and pesticide- use regulations.
Wilkinson and Doris Dumais, MOE director of environment assessments and approvals, stressed there's a rigorous process that has to be followed for project approvals under the Green Energy Act.
It involves early consultation and information-sharing with municipalities and communities, Dumais said, and concerns expressed by the public and municipal governments may become attached to approvals as conditions of operating.
Dumais noted that larger wind turbine projects are not permitted on prime farmland and that impacts on natural, archeological and cultural features of an area must be taken into account by project proponents and the ministry in assessing projects.
She said health effects of low level noise — which may be at levels that most people don't hear — are hard to determine and acknowledged more research needs to be done.
One of the difficulties is figuring out what's actually coming from turbines and what is background noise, she said.
Responding to a question from Coun. Meredith Schneider about farmers operating combines around turbines, Wilkinson pointed out it's the willing property owner putting the wind turbines up or the farmer leasing his land to a private company who decide whether there's a turbine on their property.
"So far I haven't heard any concern that it's interfering with normal farm practices within Ontario," he said.
The presentation to county council was attended by a number of officials from the lower-tier municipalities in Perth County as well as by representatives and others from Huron, Oxford and Grey counties and Owen Sound.
Roger Watt, a councillor from Asfield-Colborne-Wawanosh, said turbines are "an issue of substantial unrest in the community.
With 22% of the township population a lake-front community, he said, there are concerns about a 5-kilometre setback for wind turbines in Lake Huron.
The issue is divisive, he said. "Different members of the same family are on opposite sides of the fence."
Despite assurances from the minister that Ontario regulations, with their 40 decibels maximum at the point of reception (at the nearest dwelling, church or school) and minimum setback of 550 metres, are the most stringent in North America, everyone wasn't happy.
Paul Thompson of Grand Valley, who attended the council meeting, said he has been living near a transformer substation for a wind power project for five years where the noise level went from 16 decibels to 40.
"Basically I haven't slept in maybe two years," he said.
His complaints to the ministry haven't brought relief, he said.
Dublin resident Tom Melady, a spokesperson for West and East Perth Against Turbines (WEPAT) said he had been in a house in the Ripley area where the noise level from turbines was at 53 decibels.
"This is not science," he said following the meeting, waving a study provided by the ministry that he said does not state who did the research.
Melady said he expects some 1,200 metres from where he lives in Perth County, there's going to be a wind farm in neighbouring Huron County.
He said he doesn't feel wind farms are sustainable.
Wilkinson told reporters after the meeting the government sees opportunities in renewable energy. "We know that we can use cleaner sources of energy so that we can clean up air that we all breathe."
But he acknowledged everyone has the right to a good night's sleep.
"Nobody likes a noisy neighbour and I can tell that the Ministry of the Environment is there to ensure they (turbines) are not noisy."
Wilkinson insisted regulations are based on "the best available science."
He acknowledged people have expressed concern about low-frequency noise and said the ministry takes those concerns "very seriously" and will investigate complaints and take action where necessary.
"For the vast majority of wind turbines in Ontario, we have never, ever received a single complaint," he said. Some have had a series of complaints and the ministry has taken action to get compliance.
"We do enforce the laws of the province of Ontario and we do expect wind turbines to be good neighbours."
Wilkinson said he would personally have no problem living near a wind turbine as long as it was at least 550 metres away.
Anyone with a complaint can call the ministry's round-the-clock line at 1-800-268-6060.