Posted on Friday, December 4, 2015
Green Energy, Sick Neighbors
By Wiley Wood
It was mid-October, and Peg Papanek was thinking how lucky she was to live on Schoolhouse Road and bask in Norfolk’s beautiful weather and fall colors. She had built a fabulous patio during the summer.
Now she was packing for a trip to Asheville, N.C., where she spends the winter. But that night she slept fitfully and woke up with a strange moving pressure in her head.
Again the next night she was unable to sleep, and the following day developed pains in her ears and chest. “I felt like all the cells in my body were vibrating,” says Papanek.
As she considered possible causes, she remembered the wind turbines. She drove up Schoolhouse Road toward the Flagg Hill site and saw the turbines spinning. “I didn’t know they’d been started,” says Papanek. “At that point, all the pressure was in my forehead,” she says. As she continued up Beckley Bog Road with the turbines a few hundred yards to her right, she felt the pressure on the right side of her head and grew nauseated.
At some point during the day, Papanek’s symptoms stopped. She was able to sleep that night and woke up feeling fine. Later, she learned that the turbines had been temporarily turned off. She left Norfolk shortly afterwards, and the symptoms haven’t recurred.
But Papanek worries about what she’ll face when she returns. “If it continues, I physically won’t be able to remain there,” says Papanek. “After two days of it, I was ready to get in my car and drive away.”
Peg Papanek is not alone in her experience. In many towns across the country where wind farms have been sited near residential areas—in Byron, Wisc., in Mars Hill, Me. , in Scituate, Mass.—residents have reported similar symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty concentrating.
Wind industry proponents and regulatory authorities have generally dismissed the reported symptoms as psychosomatic or due to group hysteria.
The search for causes has focused on low frequency sound. Wind turbines generate the majority of their sound energy in the low-frequency range, below the audible threshold, according to Rick James, an acoustical engineer and consultant. Yet noise ordinances in most states, including Connecticut, address sound in the audible range.
Audiologists have reported stimulation of nerves in the ear by spikes of low frequency sound below the threshold of audibility.
The most commonly used sound level meters filter out low-frequency sound and prioritize sound at higher frequencies, in the range of speech. Their results, given as dBA or A-weighted decibels, are considered by James as largely inappropriate to measure the effects of a wind turbine on the surrounding community.
The problem of annoyance from low-frequency sound has been recognized in the HVAC industry, where air-handling equipment that complied with dBA levels still drew complaints from clients. Sound measurements that give a greater priority to low frequencies, known as C-weighting or dBC, are widely used in that industry.
The sound monitoring of BNE Energy’s Flagg Hill site, stipulated by the Connecticut Siting Council and expected to take place during the coming months, will only measure dBA levels, not dBC or low frequency sound. It will measure average sound pressure over time, not the spikes of low-frequency pressure that are believed to trigger nerve responses at sub-auditory levels.
Connecticut regulations allow noise proceeding from an industrial zone, which the Flagg Hill site has become, to a residential zone, such as the dozen houses on Flagg Hill Road, to reach 61 dBA during the day and 51 dBA at night. Average sound levels at night in a rural community are generally under 30 dBA.
The same regulations forbid the emission of infrasonic or low-frequency sound in excess of 100 dB, but it is unclear how this is measured or whether the BNE Energy turbines in Colebrook have ever had to clear this hurdle. A query to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) on this score has gone unanswered.
Meanwhile, Dr. David Lawrence, whose house on Flagg Hill Road in Colebrook stands about 1,500 feet from the nearest turbine, describes living under a state of siege. When the turbines started operating in earnest on October 17, his wife Jeanie developed insomnia, headaches and unsteadiness on her feet. The couple moved their master bed from the second floor into the basement, which is shielded by an earth embankment. “We’ve hardly been back up there since,” says Lawrence.
They limit their time on the ground floor to 10 to 15 minutes at a stretch, coming up briefly to prepare meals. They wear earplugs in the house at all times.
Lawrence, who practices as an internist in Winsted, was unaware of the wind farm project when he bought his house in 2009. Now, his best hope is to sell. “That would be ideal,” he says. “We have all our money tied up in this property.”
The state DEEP, whose noise regulations were established in 1978, no longer takes noise complaints. These must be directed to municipal authorities or to local area health boards.
Photos by Bruce Frisch.