Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Legal History of Wind Energy Health Fears

In the past five years, a phenomenon known as 'wind turbine syndrome' has suffocated and stifled rational discourse around the deployment of wind farms. It's based on the assertion that inaudible sound emissions from wind turbines are responsible for an incredible spread of symptoms, at large distances.

It's been shown, clearly, that low-frequency sound levels from operational wind turbines are much lower than you'd find in a CBD or in a rural environment. Professor Simon Chapman, from the University of Sydney, showed in a study that out of an estimated population of 32,000 living with five kilometres of wind farms, there were ~124 people who had complained of health or noise impacts from wind farms.

There have been 20 evidence reviews, by government, industry and research bodies, to assess whether there's enough scientific research out there to suggest that the symptoms stated by residents are caused by wind turbines - each found no positive evidence. Recently, the Australian Medical Association released a position statement, saying the same.

Despite a pointed lack of evidence for 'wind turbine syndrome', the issue has grown to become a central component of campaigns run in communities against wind energy, boosted by anti-wind groups that travel to towns to bolster health fears. Anecdotal evidence is the focus, as stated in this meeting held by a group opposed to a nearby wind farm development:



The barrister in the video is explicit about what it takes for a successful legal challenge to a wind farm - as much anecdotal evidence as you can muster:
"That experience is in itself, evidence. If you dragged in thirty people from Waubra, twenty from Waterloo and put them in a court room, to talk about the loss and the suffering, it will support a claim to obtain an injunction against any wind farm being proposed"
A recent post by energy blogger Mike Barnard examined a thorough history of the times this health issue has been considered by the courts, around the world. He crawled legal databases, found more than 150 decisions, and examined 47 of which had addressed noise or health issues from those proposed wind farms. 46 of those found no evidence that the proposals would damage humans or animals living nearby.



Mike's list of 47 court cases is interesting. Firstly, it's worth noting that all of the countries are English speaking. Despite a large installed capacity in European countries, the issue seems nearly non-existent. Mike did search European countries, but acknowledges that language might have been an issue with the search.



There was also a distinct increase in the issue being raised in the courts after the publication of a book called 'Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Natural Experiment' by a paediatrician named Nina Pierpont - the wife of an anti-wind activist in the US. It was published in late 2009.

In the NHMRC's latest evidence review, they excluded it from their report, listing it under the "Article is not a study" section.



Australia's distribution is interesting. Victoria comprises the bulk of cases that considered the health issue. Every time the health issue was tested in Australian courts, they found no evidence to support the claim that 'wind turbine syndrome' should make us fearful of wind farms.



It's unlikely that having claims assessed and debunked by health bodies and tested in a variety of courts in several different countries will put a dent in the motivation of groups that travel to communities, with the hope of convincing people that they ought to feel visceral fear.

Thanks to Mike's analysis, it's interesting to see how the publication of a single report, not peer-reviewed or published in any journal, can give birth to a mythical syndrome expressed through the court battles detailed in the timeline below, and the imperviousness of this 'syndrome' to demands for evidence.

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