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AEI Commentary: on negligence and the evolution of standards

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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.

7 Responses to “AEI Commentary: on negligence and the evolution of standards”

  1. Wayne Gulden Says:

    Sorry, Jim, I can’t agree with your lenience towards the industry, including the consultants and the government. The warning signs have been loud, consistent and widespread for at least a decade. Of course the industry blamed the victims. This is a history of doing this with anybody inflicting harm for profit, and I’m surprised that people like yourself have seemingly forgotten that history. You say the industry “can’t understand”. I say you’ve been played, just like the government whose core function it is to protect us.

    If the industry would have honestly been interested in getting to the truth, don’t you think they would have studied those victims and their homes? The fact that they never have, not a single one, instead buying them out and gagging them should indicate their real motivations.

    I’m not aware that the industry’s favorite consultants (like Hessler) have ever gone into a victim’s home and measured what they are experiencing, like Rand did in McPherson. If not, then how in the world can they have any valid opinions on what the noise level ought to be? Sorry again, they have violated their duty to the public and ought to be nailed for it.

  2. Catherine Bayne Says:

    “anti-wind cranks or the hyper-sensitive”

    Ad hominum attacks and negative characterization of science-based criticism; discrimination against a minority group based on susceptibility to stress;you should listen to yourself!

    A reasonable person would have known or should have known that harm would be done…the noise writing has been on the walls for too long to claim ignorance.

  3. aeinews Says:

    I hear you, Wayne, and appreciate why you and many others feel this way. It has indeed been ten years now since the first rumblings of community discontent (eg the Lincoln Township surveys done by University of Wisconsin researchers), and over the past five years we’ve seen a steady stream of new projects come online and cause noise issues. (Though it also remains true that many projects continue to come online with no big noise issues)

    I know it’s a slow process, but for a variety of reasons (personality/temperament high among them) I am choosing to be a voice that attempts to bridge the differences, while others highlight the issues in their own ways. I’ve long been a champion of the acousticians who are going to the trouble areas and doing innovative studies to try to understand why the turbine sounds are triggering these unexpectedly intense reactions; this was a key theme of my earlier Renewable Energy World pieces.

    I’m encouraged to see that even a mainstream acoustician such as Hessler is saying things like this:
    “the threshold between what it is normally regarded as acceptable noise from a project and what is unacceptable to some is a project sound level that falls in a gray area ranging from about 35 to 45 dBA (Ldn),” (thus recognizing that even 35dB is edgy for some) and is citing Pedersen to acknowledge “relatively high annoyance rates of around 20 to 25%” among residents living in areas with project sound of 40-45dB. (A major step forward from presumptions that noise complaints come from a tiny minority) His current overall recommendation is to keep project sound levels to 40dBA (Ldn; full 24hr average) or less whenever there are many homes involved.

    This is a big step forward, even though I interpret Pedersen a bit differently (zeroing in on rural areas to see higher annoyance rates there), and of course other acousticians are recommending lower limits and shorter averaging times. Still, this is an indication to me that mainstream community noise analysis is moving in a constructive direction.

  4. Annette Smith Says:

    Steven Cooper of Australia recently wrote a piece about the ethical responsibility of noise experts that is relevant to consider:

    I’ve been working with citizens in Vermont dealing with wind turbine projects for 3 1/2 years. In that time I have asked 6 wind developers to “please do it differently” and engage in a community-based stakeholder process. Nobody has agreed, even after DOE sponsored workshops in New England that told the wind developers they needed to change how they are doing business. Ironically, at one conference, the noise expert that was just named in the Hardscrabble, NY lawsuit was one of the speakers and he basically told those present (about 100 in total, including 30 wind developers) that they should stop saying there is no noise.

    I have further pushed wind developers in Vermont to at least work with the community on the noise expert they hire, rather than hiring their own. Still no takers. They have all chosen to hire the “usual suspects” who come up with evaluations that show there will be no noise problems for neighbors. We now have one project complete and on-line that is generating noise complaints sufficient for a doctor to have told one family they need to move. A second wind project is in the commissioning phase and Saturday morning neighbors 1.25 miles away were awakened at 3 a.m., could not get back to sleep, developed headaches, and in the morning they learned that neighbors more than 3.5 miles away were also hearing the noise quite loudly.

    In the case of the first project, Hessler is the noise expert hired by the wind company. The family who has been advised to leave their home has twice asked them to put a noise monitor at their home rather than the one near them that is below an intervening ridgeline. Hessler and the company that hired them has refused their request.

    I’m sorry, Jim, but I can’t agree with you that there has not been an ethical violation occurring that has put a tremendous number of people at risk based on studies paid for by the wind industry. In fact I applaud the residents around the Hardscrabble project for finally going to the root cause which is enabling this industry to expand into areas where these big machines do not belong. I drove through the Hardscrabble project when it was under construction in 2009, on my way to the first symposium on noise and health from wind turbines held in Ontario Canada. I was shocked by how tall the turbines were, and how close they were to so many homes. Everything that is now being discussed was discussed at that Ontario conference. Three years later, there is no excusing the damage that acousticians are doing by testifying in the interests of wind developers, but not in any way looking out in the interests of the people who live around them. This is the definition of an ethical violation.

  5. aeinews Says:

    Thanks, Annette, for adding such concrete comments, both re: efforts to encourage developers to approach it with a more open/flexible mind, and the initial experiences around the VT wind farms.

    It’s also valuable to me to hear your way of framing the Hardscrabble suit, as “going to the root cause”, whether that is sound studies or (more to the point in my mind) wind developers who continue to ignore the increasing number of siting failures in which a significant portion of the surrounding population is in an uproar. Much as Ambrose/Rand have stressed for a couple years at least now, it’s not that hard to predict community response rates, rather than simply laying out some presumably reassuring noise numbers. As noted in my original post on Hardscrabble in Sept2011, this particular noise study did actually identify a couple dozen homes where noise was expected to hit 45-50dB, and the sound maps showed over a hundred at over 40dB. They weren’t hiding this, but neither were the implications made clear enough. I don’t really know how they “should” be evaluating what 40dB and over can do, as there really still appear to be dozens of wind farms where these sound levels are not triggering major outcries (mostly in flat country of ranches and large farms)–but likely more to the point are experiences in more similar towns, where such outcries are becoming very common.

    I really do value the full range of responses to all this; I understand both the impatience and frustration of wind farm neighbors and the mixed and confusing messages that developers are trying to figure out how to make sense of. I think that over the next few years it will become far harder to ignore the experiences that you are detailing, and flexibility will increase in siting standards. I know that these policy changes happen too slowly; it’s always been that way and likely always will. And, lawsuits have always played a role in such policy shifts, along with open public dialogue and scientific studies focused on understanding the problem (rather than rehashes of conventional wisdom that supports current practices that are too often falling short). We’re riding an old familiar merry-go-round. But the process does tend to move forward and incorporate hard-won (and sometimes tragic, and usually initially ignored) experiences, eventually.

  6. Annette Smith Says:

    After I wrote the above comment I received these documents from neighbors of the wind project mentioned above, currently being commissioned

    This is the project where we asked the developers to at least hire a different noise expert. This circumstance was entirely predictable, especially since the company came in post-CPG (certificate of public good issued) and decided to use V112, which were not under consideration during the technical hearings. The neighboring Towns asked the Public Service Board to reopen the hearings to take testimony on the proposed changes and how the longer blades would affect aesthetics (viewshed and noise) and economics. The PSB, which was rushing to approve the project so it could met the PTC deadlines and is strongly promoted by the Governor, refused to reopen the hearings.

    This situation is now no surprise to those of us who have learned about the science. So now what?

    I am very interested in your suggestions about what to do now. This is a 21 turbine ridgeline away with Vestas 3MW v112s, the turbines are between 720 and 950 feet apart.

  7. aeinews Says:

    Wow, strong, clear letter. I don’t have any real suggestions about “what to do now”….it’s little solace to be asked to be the latest community that gathers its experiences and testimony so that future decision-makers can draw from that in making their choices elsewhere. Once more, on a ridge, and in an area where low clouds are going to be relatively common….

    For a number of reasons (primarily my personality), I’ve chosen not to take an activist/advocacy role or stance in all this; I see my role as creating a context that can help others better understand the dynamics taking place between communities and wind companies. In this, as you’ve seen, I tend to present a somewhat tempered take on everyone’s view–at least in part because I don’t see the “big bad wind companies”/”crazy NIMBY locals” duality doing much to move things forward (though again, I get why it devolves that way, and why some locals feel the companies are willfully ignoring their concerns).

    I hope that, on balance, my ways of sharing the stories about communities where turbine noise is disruptive can help the industry recognize that these issues are real, and so move them toward more flexibility in their siting standards. As I’ve said ever since visiting Fond du Lac County Wisconsin a few years back, I have little doubt that a decade from now, as a wider array of renewables become part of our energy mix, we’ll look back and wonder what we were thinking putting these giant machines so close to concentrations of homes. I do believe wind energy has a role and a place, but we’re pushing too hard, too close, in too many places.

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