This week, sixty people living within a mile of the Hardscrabble Wind Farm in upstate New York filed suit against the manufacturers of the turbines, owners of the project, and consultants who prepared environmental assessments. Since the new lawsuit is apparently aiming to collect damages from the wind farm owners, rather than challenging the project’s operating permits, it takes a line of attack that’s hard for me to get behind, because of its need to show negligence.
As I prepared my post on the lawsuit, I found myself reflecting on the larger context within which today’s wind farm noise controversies are taking place. What follows is an AEI Commentary that grapples with the difficult and contentious process we are in the midst of, and AEI’s place within that process.
I can appreciate why the Hardscrabble neighbors chose to target company finances rather than local zoning authorities; when permits have been granted based on a clear public process, there is generally very little legal recourse. And, when one’s life is upended, it makes sense to want those behind the upheaval to take responsibility. I’ve certainly heard wind farm neighbors elsewhere, after finding that procedural challenges led to no meaningful change, wondering whether looking for monetary compensation would be a better way to get companies to realize that their siting practices are not as benign as they seem to think. Still, it’s hard for me (distant from the impacts and biased toward working together) to accept that rather than simply claiming that the project has been more impactful than the planning documents presumed, the suit seeks to lay blame by claiming that “all of the defendants acted willfully, recklessly, were grossly negligent, and/or acted with a conscious disregard…”
In particular, I’m troubled that the noise consultant who did the sound modeling is a named defendant (not only the company, but the staff acoustician as well).
While there certainly are plenty of examples of wind projects in which the noise levels being predicted (35-50dB), in the type of community present here (many residents who are not working farmers/ranchers), have led to widespread noise issues, it’s also true that there are many projects with these noise levels at homes and farms where there have not been significant problems. The engineering consultants delivered documents that outlined the predicted noise levels; they used standard procedures and prepared clear maps and even lists of the homes that would be the most impacted. Of course there are other modeling methods they could have used, and they might have gone beyond simple noise prediction to discuss likely community responses to these noise levels, but this was not what they were asked to do, and they did their work in the same way they have in countless other similar projects. It’s a stretch to suggest that they were negligent or reckless in carrying out this work.
We are in the midst of a fundamental and widespread reassessment of the noise impacts of wind farms, as wind developers begin to appreciate that noise complaints are not all coming from anti-wind cranks or the hyper-sensitive, noise consultants come to understand that community response to wind turbine sound happens at lower sound levels than other sources of community noise, and local planning authorities grapple to find setbacks or noise limits that are appropriate for their particular community. I just don’t see this as negligence or disregard, but as part of the natural evolution of public policy in the face of new information.
I do understand why those most affected now point to specific similar situations that occurred prior to this project, and ask “why didn’t you pay attention to that?” There have indeed been warning signs, and serious problems at particular projects, for several years. The industry was initially skeptical that noise complaints amounted to anything more than a very few people and that simply being more diligent in their community relations would nip the problem in the bud. But those increasingly well-known noise problems still only crop up in a minority of new wind projects (though in a much higher proportion of those in areas with more people; see the original post for how David Hessler, a widely respected noise consultant, is addressing this). The industry is beginning to address noise issues as something real (though they may still not accept how widespread they can be in some types of communities, even as mainstream consultants like Hessler begin to take notice). So at this point in the gradual awakening of the industry to the noise issue, to presume that those behind the project “knew” they would be causing harm, when in fact they were simply continuing to operate based on the bulk of their prior experience, is not something I can get behind.
Wind farm neighbors at projects in many states and countries are speaking up, helping to make the actual impacts clearer than they were just a few years ago. Acousticians and others are looking more deeply into wind farm noise issues, trying to understand why complaints have been more widespread than might have been expected. Yet it takes years for industry standards to shift, or for regulatory criteria to adapt to new information. In particular, new regulations (especially more restrictive ones) require a solid and extended body of research to justify the changes to existing standards. Such a body of work is beginning to emerge, and though community groups have been quick to seize upon it, many of the more dramatic findings still need to be replicated and otherwise incorporated into the existing body of research. As longtime readers will know, I think that the emphasis placed on health impacts is both distracting everyone – especially the wind industry and local planning authorities – from discussion of equally valid questions about the appropriateness of new chronic noise appearing in rural soundscapes, and is creating an unnecessarily high bar of proof for justifying moderate or community-specific changes in wind farm siting standards. (This is where I differ from many, in that I don’t oppose wind energy; I simply understand that different communities have different relationships to their landscape and soundscape, and feel that wind farm siting needs to take this into account.)
And yes, I do also understand that moving public policy, and even more so corporate policy, requires a diverse range of players all pushing in the same general direction. The desired end points for the members of this “change” contingent are not all the same. (In this case, some want to shut the wind industry down altogether, others want to figure out how close they can build without triggering a big community outcry, and still others want developers to recognize their impacts and fairly compensate those affected; there are many other agendas as well, but you get the point.) Within this amorphous impulse working toward more sensitive wind farm siting practices, here at the Acoustic Ecology Institute I try to create a context for understanding the points of view of as many of the players as possible. I trust in the process of public dialogue, though in this I realize I am perhaps naive. I appreciate both why wind farm neighbors are needing to lay blame and seek financial recompense, and also why wind developers feel besieged by a chorus of complaints that they can’t understand and think are largely invalid. We’re in the midst of a storm here, and it’s hard to make sense of what’s behind all the bluster coming from many directions at once. I hope that AEI can contribute to a calming of the storm, and thus to the creation of a constructive and just way forward.