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The windmills in our minds

25, November 2011

I received an email recently from a lady I had never met that almost brought me to tears. It was a cry for help from someone crushed.

She told a story of her family's recent years of bewilderment, frustration, anger and despair.

Samantha Stepnell used to live with her husband and young son in the family home on their farm at Waubra in western Victoria, 900 metres from the Waubra wind farm.

The family abandoned their home to live in Ballarat 30 kilometres away because of chronic sleep disorders experienced since the wind farm started operating. Sleep disorders over an extended period of time, which then degenerated into a range of deleterious health issues.

They have not sold their home, they have abandoned it. What does it take to force a young family to abandon their home in a close-knit rural community to settle elsewhere?

They are not the only ones. Noel Dean and his wife; Brian Kermond and family and many others. Over 20 homes have been abandoned in western Victoria because of Wind Turbine Syndrome. Other families do not even have this option and are trapped by circumstances imposed upon them. This pattern has manifested around the world in recent years since wind turbines have grown from the original 50 metre structures to giant 150 metre towers taller than Sydney Harbour Bridge. Rural communities across the globe are increasingly indignant at the multiple negative impacts of poorly sited wind farms and what they see as fairy tales promulgated by the wind industry and governments keen to be seen 'taking action on climate change'.

A peer-reviewed study in December 2010 by Danish researchers Moller and Pedersen linked larger modern turbines with increased noise impact. These larger turbines have been the preferred choice in Australian wind farms in recent years.

Some who refuse to believe wind turbines can cause adverse health effects accuse landholders who are opposed of envy that they have missed out on hosting turbines. The Stepnells were asked to host eight turbines for a benefit of $56,000 per year, but declined. The other documented issue that believers cannot explain is when people suffering adverse health effects move away from their home their health improves, but when they return in the hope of resuming their life in their former home, their health again deteriorates.

No-one is claiming that all people will get sick from wind turbines. Dr Daniel Shepherd and others have concluded [p18] from separate studies that between 10-15 per cent of the population are more susceptible to noise than the general population. It is completely unremarkable that two families can be living the same distance from turbines with one family, or even members within a family unaffected.

Multi-national wind energy companies operating in Australia have known since 2004 that health issues have been associated with wind farms from their experience in Europe, while asserting there are no peer-reviewed studies linking adverse health effects and wind farms. This was echoed in July 2010 by the National Health and Medical Research Council who stated "there is no published scientific evidence to positively link wind turbines with adverse health effects" to which they added, "While there is currently no evidence linking these phenomena with adverse health effects, the evidence is limited. Therefore it is recommended that relevant authorities take a precautionary approach".

Implicit in these statements is the acknowledgement that if there were peer-reviewed studies they would take the health issue seriously.

Nine peer-reviewed studies have been published or approved for publication in science journals since July linking wind turbines with adverse health effects.

The recent senate inquiry into the health effects of wind farms expressed clearly in its recommendations that the federal government undertake studies into the health effects of turbines.

Since then the Victorian government has amended planning legislation for new wind farms to require a 2 kilometre setback from residences and a 5 kilometre setback from 21 nominated regional towns and no-go zones in several regions of the state. Victorian premier Ted Baillieu has acknowledged the need for a health study.

While this recognition of the problem is welcome it does not address the hundreds of turbines approved under the old guidelines in the lead up to the last state elections in Victoria and New South Wales. When constructed, these new approvals will triple the number of turbines to affect 43 different communities in Victoria and 41 in New South Wales, with many of these turbines less than two kilometres from homes.

With the benefit of recent acoustical studies and medical papers it has become increasingly clear there is a link between wind turbine operation and health effects, the only question now is to what degree and what action to take.

It is now established that there is, at the very least, a strong prima facie case that large modern turbines emit low frequency sound causing adverse health impacts to some people and governments are knowingly allowing this harm to be inflicted for the 25 year life of the wind farms.

The state has a duty of care to those who live in the communities that are earmarked for wind farms, who through no fault of their own have found their lives and health disrupted by companies intent only on profit that is significantly increased through inefficient hidden taxpayer subsidies.

The federal health minister has a moral obligation to take the 'precautionary approach' and implement the recommendations of the senate inquiry to establish health studies to settle this issue. State governments have the same obligation to their citizens to implement moratoriums on construction to abide by the maxim – 'do no harm'.

It is distressing that we can get public policy so wrong, so much of the time and then take so long to fix it. These however, are the consequences of policy decisions driven by political imperatives, green populist narratives and the resulting conventional 'wisdom', rather than facts and evidence.

This would not be lost on Samantha, who said in her email "Please do not let what has happened to my family, happen to anyone else."

Published in at Online Opinion on November 25th 2011

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