Debate Heats Up

Source: Steve Robertson, The Hamilton Spectator, 4 April, 2015

Victorian Senator John Madigan, who chaired a Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines meeting all day in Portland on Monday has vowed to “play a straight bat” and get to the truth, no matter how long it takes, after hearing dozens of witnesses from both sides of the contentious wind farm debate.

Speaking after the formal hearing at the Portland South West TAFE campus, Sen Madigan also said he deplored what he termed “instances of denigration” he had heard about from those who objected to wind farm developments at Cape Bridgewater, and also at Macarthur.

“I’m not going to pre-empt the report of this committee, but I do think there is ample scope for further investigation of the health complaints I’ve heard about, like difficulty breathing, sleepless nights, and a heavy sensation in the muscles,” he said. “When this many people report these symptoms, there needs to be a thorough investigation.

“In the USA, when nearby residents reported similar symptoms, the wind farm was closed as a health hazard.”

Each state provided a member for the panel and most of the parties, but not the Greens, were represented. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon asked questions via speaker-phone.

At least four of the senators expressed a view that infrasound, tones below the average person’s ability to hear them, may be linked to the sensations that some people living fairly close to wind farms, have experienced. This infrasound, they noted, should be the topic of detailed medical study, in Australian conditions by Australian researchers.

Infrasound, experienced acoustician Steven Cooper told the panel, is low frequencies below 20 Hertz. Turbines emit sound between 20 and 200 Hertz, he said.

He noted reaction to infrasound varies depending on who is hearing it, “just like not everyone gets seasick”.

The morning session was devoted to several strong endorsements of the economic and environmental benefits of wind farms and an urgent plea to set the Renewable Energy Target. This message was delivered first by Pacific Hydro, represented by Andrew Richards.

He told the panel that an AMA report “does not support the view that infrasound causes health problems”. He also said Pacific Hydro would not pay for a proper health study and explained that the company funded the Cooper report “because we wanted to better understand the complaints we were getting from Cape Bridgewater”.

Up next was a team with employees of Keppel Prince Engineering, including Gilbert Wilson Trinidad Diaz and assistant general manager Dan McKinna.

Among the key points in their testimony, which was formally recorded in Hansard:

  • “We need certainty from government about the Renewable Energy Target,” Mr McKinna said. “If we get that, we could re-employ all those recently laid off and could possibly expand by 50 – 100 jbs.”
  • “This is having a huge impact on Portland,” Ms Diaz said. “If there is no RET soon, many of us will be forced to leave.”
  • “Portland youth unemployment is at 18 per cent,” AMWU assistant secretary Craig Kelly said. “This uncertainty is having a huge impact on our steel industry as well.”
  • “Our shire has been significantly hit by the loss of employment opportunities,” Gilbert Wilson said. “Someday our generation may be looked upon as environmental vandals. We need the RET set at the right level.”

Glenelg Shire was represented by CEO Greg Burgoyne, Stephen Kerrigan and Matthew Berry, all of whom answered questions from the senators. Joining them at the presentation table were the senior officers from Pyrenees and Ararat councils. All cited positive economic aspects of the wind industry for their respective shires.

Sen Madigan said he thought enforcing state and Commonwealth mandated rules was a burden for them.

He questioned them closely about planning approval processes and agreed that enforcing the rules left the councils under-resourced, without staff or revenue to deal with the increasingly complex projects and regulations.

After lunch, it was the turn of nine wind skeptics or outright opponents to speak.

  • Farmer Bill Rogerson of Glenthompson said his home was just 1.7km from a turbine. He blamed the turbines for poor lambing rates, noting that some were born deformed. “My sheep dogs don’t work as well near the turbines, either,” he told the panel.
  • Robin Pollard told senators the turbines in her area had been turned off at night, but when they were running it was impossible for her to sleep.
  • “I have been treated very shabbily by AGL whenever I complain,” Ann Gardner of Macarthur testified. “We have made nearly 200 complaints to AGL and all they say is “Visit your doctor’. We are hammered by infrasound and the New Zealand standard (used to measure noise compliance) does not apply. NASA in the USA has confirmed the effects of infrasound, so why can’t Victoria?”
  • “It feels like a charge of electricity in my body,” artist Janet Hetherington of Macarthur said. “I get stabbing pains and great anxiety. All we want is to live and work on our farms. Please do not ignore our pain.”
  • “I’m not paid by the fossil fuel industry and I don’t below to a political part,” Keith Staff of Penshurst, who is active in the local Landscape Guardians movement, said. “Wind farms have been a catastrophe at every level.”
  • Cathy Ezard of Cape Bridgewater said she wanted to seel her property because of the effects of the nearby wind farm. “The landscape has been compromised. Who will remove the turbines in 20 years?”

Speakers also deplored what they said were heavy losses of protected raptors like falcons, as well as the threatened brolga. Farmer Hamish Cumming told the panel that brolgas had been displaced between 6 – 14 kilometres from turbines, their nests abandoned.

When asked by Tasmanian Senator Anne Urquhart about the number of birds killed every year by cats, Mr Cumming got the day’s biggest laugh from the crowded room when he replied that he had never seen a domestic cat kill a raptor or a brolga.

After lunch, senators heard from a cross-section of the community leaders.

  • Portland realtor Wayne Barrett said renewable energy is an “ongoing jobs-provider” here in Portland. “We need support so young people can get jobs here,” he said. “Right now one of the top businesses is trucking stuff to the port.”
  • “Because of climate change I fear for my grandchildren,” Helen Darbyshire said. “We’ve never experienced climate like this before.”
  • “It’s true, the climate has changed,” Bernie Boatman of Ararat said. “Rainfall was fairly predictable until about the mid-a990’s. Now the dams on my farm just don’t fill like they used to. Urgent action is needed to reduce emissions, but I do agree there are right and wrong places to put the turbines.”
  • John McMahon, president of newly-formed Wind Industry Reform Victoria, said he feared the newer and much larger turbines and blades proposed for Great Western. He said turbines were having a bad economic impact on rural Victoria.
  • Local indigenous man Steven Saunders said cultural heritage sites important to his people had been destroyed during wind farm construction. “this comes under federal law,” he reminded the senators. “We had sacred dreaming stories there, but none were documented,” he charged. “The government should intervene.”
  • After the public session, in-camera reports were heard from Cape Bridgewater residents Sonia Trist and Melissa Ware who have been outspoken in their criticism of Pacific Hydro for what they see as serious health issues.

Several in the audience noted that a Senate committee in 2011 had explored many of the same topics, even calling for further research into infrasound, but that nothing has happened yet.

This committee was scheduled to bring down its report at the end of June, but sources said early August was much more likely.

On Sunday, senators visited homes at Cape Bridgewater where residents had complained of headaches and sleeplessness.

After listening to the testimony, WA Liberal Senator Chris Back, himself a veterinarian, said he had no doubts about the sincerity of those who had told him of their health problems. And he endorsed the choice of Portland as the site for these hearings.

“We chose Portland because so many residents here were concerned.” He said.

“Also, Pacific Hydro was a participant in the search to find answers through the Cooper Report. No other wind farm operator did anything like that. Thirdly, this is a rural issue, not one for Melbourne, where some people suggested holding these hearings.”