Falmouth Health Board Debates Shutting Down Turbines
By: Brent Runyon
Tempers flared at the Falmouth Board of Health on Monday night, as board members reported the results of testimony about the health effects of wind turbines but stopped short of committing to shutting down the wind turbines in Falmouth.
More than 20 residents who live near the wind turbines in Falmouth came to the meeting and tried to persuade the board of health to take immediate emergency action, but were frustrated when the board members said they needed more time to review the information. At the end of the discussion, the board of health agreed to hold a special meeting on Monday,
June 11, at 7 PM in the civil defense room of Falmouth Town Hall to discuss the wind turbine health testimony.
Chairman Gail A. Harkness began the discussion by reporting the results of the oral testimony on May 24 and written testimony submitted by May 31, which the board of health solicited after hearing residents’ complaints since Wind 1, the town-owned 262-foot high, 1.65-megawatt Vestas wind turbine began spinning at the Wastewater Treatment Plant on Blacksmith Shop Road two years ago. Wind 2, the same size and model turbine, began turning this year. Residents have also complained about health effects from the privately owned Notus Clean Energy turbine in Falmouth Technology Park, which is the same size and model as the town turbines, and from the smaller Woods Hole Research Center turbine on Woods Hole Road.
There were 61 people who submitted testimony, she said, representing a total of 65 people affected by the turbines, including other family members. Of those responses, 49 people reported negative health effects from the turbines.
“We are in the process of a draft analysis right now,” Dr. Harkness said. The board needs more time to analyze the results of the testimony, she said, and verify and map each of the complaints to better understand the information.
The most common complaint was sleep deprivation, she said, with 33 people reporting the turbines had disturbed their sleep. There were 20 complaints that turbines increased their stress levels, 15 people reported cognitive difficulties, and 11 people reported hearing problems, such as ringing in the ears and pressure in the ears.
There were seven complaints of anxiety, six people reported problems with spatial relationships, and three people who reported problems related to their eyes because of the turbines.
There were two people who said that they believed the wind turbines were causing difficulties in their relationships, she said and two people who reported thoughts of suicide.
Additionally, she said, four people reported they would not reveal their symptoms, but would discuss the problems if their testimony could be kept confidential.
There were also 16 people who reported that they have not experienced negative health effects from the turbines, and of those, 13 work in Falmouth Technology Park.
Board members said they will collate the complaints along with two years of data from other complaint logs related to the wind turbines in town and forward all the information to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, along with letters
Board member George Heufelder said the state health officials are swamped with requests for studies, but he believes they will respond to the Falmouth request. “They’re not beyond moving something to the top of the pile” for political reasons, he said. The state officials should study the health effects of wind turbines, he said, because of the state energy policy promoting wind turbines and the corresponding health concerns. “It’s not going to go away,” he said. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, he said.
Dr. Harkness said the board planned to discuss and analyze the testimony next week during a special meeting. “We want to move expeditiously,” she said.
But Suzanne C. Hobart of Blacksmith Shop Road who lives near the Notus turbine in Falmouth Technology Park, said she was unwilling to wait until the next meeting because of the impacts the turbines have had on her life. Ms. Hobart said the board of health has the power to shut down the wind turbines. “Are you saying now you are not willing to do that?” she asked.
Dr. Harkness began to respond by stating that the board of health needs more time to go through the complaints and cannot make a decision based on information they have not fully analyzed and discussed. But Ms. Hobart and David R. Moriarty of Lower Road, West Falmouth, cut her off, yelling simultaneously from the back of the room that the board of health should stand up to the Falmouth Board of Selectmen and protect the health of residents.
“You are going to be held responsible for Ms. Hobart’s health and life,” Mr. Moriarty yelled. He and Ms. Hobart then left the room.
Other residents tried to persuade the board to take action in different ways. Wind turbine neighbor Kathryn L. Elder of Blacksmith Shop Road thanked the board members for their courage and help. “After reviewing the testimony, do you believe that there is a further health risk?” If there is a risk, she said, the board of health has the power to issue an emergency order to shut down the turbines. “I ask you to vote tonight to turn the turbines off,” she said. Turning off the turbines will allow the neighbors to participate in the Wind Turbine Options Analysis Group, a group of town officials and residents working to find solutions to the problems of the town-owned wind turbines.
“We cannot make any such decision here tonight,” Dr. Harkness said. “It’s irresponsible for us to do that.” The board members need more time to review the written testimony that was submitted up until last Thursday, and to collate that data with two other complaint logs before sending it to the state, she said. “We do hear you. We really do hear you,” Dr. Harkness said.
But Mark J. Cool of Fire Tower Road, another wind turbine neighbor, said the board of health has written to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health twice before, and has never received a direct response. “The state isn’t giving you anything,” he said. The board of health is being stonewalled by the state public health officials, he said.
“We’re throwing ourselves at the mercy of the board,” he said. The board of health should take action, “because of the silence from the state and the volume of the reports from the neighbors,” Mr. Cool said.
Mr. Heufelder, who works as the director of the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment, said Mr. Cool had a point. “I’m a bureaucrat,” Mr. Heufelder said, and explained that complaints can sometimes be set aside if they are not specific enough. The more specific a complaint is, the more action the government can take.
The wind turbine complaints are specific enough that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health would “reach the tipping point” and take action, he said. The board could vote to shut down the turbines in Falmouth, he said. “We’re not ready to take that step,” he said.
But board member Stephen D. Rafferty said he had not ruled out taking emergency action. Mr. Rafferty said he needed more time to review all the testimony submitted and still reserved the right to discuss all the options on the table.
Maurice Rowe of Westmoreland Drive said he was incredulous that Mr. Heufelder said he was a bureaucrat, interpreting that statement as meaning he would not take action, but simply pass the complaints on to another department.
Mr. Heufelder tried to clarify that he meant that the more specific a complaint is, the more action he can take. If one person complains that all the restaurants in a specific area of town are bad, there is little action he can take. But if one person says they got sick after eating at a specific restaurant, he can investigate. If dozens of people say they got sick after eating at a specific restaurant, he would investigate more intensely.
Returning to the wind turbines, Mr. Heufelder said the complaints fall into the last category. “This is the top level,” Mr. Heufelder said. “We know there’s something here.”
J. Malcolm Donald of Ambleside Drive referenced the earlier comment about the squeaky wheel. “Turn off the turbines. That gets heard in Boston,” he said.
Alden H. Cook of Ambleside Drive asked, “Do you as individual members of this board believe these machines are making people ill?”
Dr. Harkness said each board member had their own opinions, but had never discussed them in a public meeting.
There was also a discussion about how much information the board would send to the state. Board member John B. Waterbury said he thought they should send all the data, including meteorological information.
Mr. Rafferty said the board has tried to divorce itself from the nuances of science, and be concerned only with the health effects and not diagnosing the problems with the machines.
Annie Hart Cool of Fire Tower Road asked how many more months of abuse the residents would have to take. “I want to be the squeaky wheel,” she said.
The residents then filed out of the meeting room, and later in the meeting, the board returned to the discussion.
Mr. Heufelder said he does not feel comfortable discussing the wind turbines in public session because of the reactions to each of the comments. If the discussion is in the open and in public, he said he feels constrained.
Board members said they would like to discuss the wind turbine complaints in executive session so they could speak more freely, and would consult with Falmouth Town Counsel Frank J. Duffy Jr. to decide whether that was possible.
“I think we all have an idea of a course of action, but we can’t talk about it,” Dr. Harkness said. She is the only board member who had read all the complaints. “It’s enlightening to read it. It really is,” she said.
Health agent David W. Carignan said he would make copies of all the wind turbine complaints for each of the board members before the meeting on Monday.
Dr. Waterbury said each of the complaints should be mapped on the town’s GIS system along with the distance from each of the largest wind turbines in Falmouth.
John Carlton-Foss of Church Street, Woods Hole, videotaped the meeting despite the objections of some who said they were concerned he would edit the video. Board members said they would consult with Mr. Duffy to see whether Mr. Carlton-Foss should be allowed to tape the meetings.