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Australian Senate Committee rejects bill defining excessive wind farm noise

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines Add comments

An Australian Senate Committee has recommended against passage of a proposed bill that would define excessive noise for wind farms as 10dBA above ambient, and suspend operations of wind farms failing to meet that standard.  In extensive submitted statements and published testimony, the Committee heard from a wide range of witnesses from Australia, the UK, the US, and Canada, including many names familiar to those following the wind farm noise issue.

The final report is also rather extensive; among the key reasons for recommending against passage was the perception that in Australia’s key wind farm areas, current regulations should be sufficient; in rural areas of New South Wales, South Australia, and Western Australia, noise limits are already 35dBA in quiet conditions.  Yet noise complaints continue to be widespread, though wind proponents and opponents disagree on how many are bothered; the Committee noted that distrust has led many people with problems to not lodge formal complaints with wind companies or regulatory authorities.  The bad blood goes both ways: wind company representatives reported that their attempts to meet with a physician reporting problems have been repeatedly rebuffed, while acousticians studying responses in some problem areas have found it impossible to obtain turbine operations data that would allow them to investigate correlations between operations and their measurements. A provision in the bill to require noise, weather, wind, and power data from wind farms to be made available online was met with strong resistance from wind companies, who felt it was an onerous requirement, and suggested that power data on specific turbines and wind could be “reverse engineered” by competitors and undermine their future project planning; the Committee recommended that such data be made available to regulatory authorities, rather than publicly (though in recommending the bill be not passed, it’s uncertain how or whether the full Senate might take up this point).  Another factor mentioned in the final report is that proponents of the bill presented testimony that suggested to the committee that there was disagreement about whether the proposed 10dBA over ambient limit was the best choice; indeed, some suggested that 5dBA over ambient would be more sensible, and others suggested lower dB limits, especially at night.  

While the focus of the bill itself was audible noise, some of the testimony addressed health effects and infrasound questions; on this point, the committee seemed to be especially interested in a presumed “nocebo” effect, by which an expectation of harm can lead to some proportion of people experiencing harmful effects.  While widespread reports of health effects was a driving factor among Committee members pushing for this bill, the final report suggests that some of the letters submitted, describing a wide range of symptoms, did not suggest any simple cause and effect.  The Committee seemed especially concerned by dozens of letters from areas where wind farms are not yet operating expressing fears about health effects should wind farms be built near them. The final report quotes a study on nocebo and infrasound which will be published next year.  Nocebo has been suggested as an explanation for clusters of health complaints around some wind farms; while the concept has been around for many years in relation to other sources of community concerns, it’s unclear how deeply it has been investigated.  Several witnesses pointed out that any such effect, even if it may apply to some individuals, should not be considered a primary factor when there are viable pathways by which audible sound can cause the observed responses, in particular in relation to sleep disruption by audible noise.  At the end of the Committee’s report, five Senators point out that the ongoing literature review being undertaken by the National Health and Medical Research Council does not fulfill the call by an 2011 Senate report, The Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms, for the Australian government to fund new epidemiological studies on wind farms and human health. 

Also of note is this excerpt:

The committee wishes to emphasise that it does not doubt that the symptoms are real. It also does not doubt that some people may be affected by audible noise. It is concerned, as Dr Tait from Doctors for the Environment Australia expressed, that the discussion about a purported wind turbine syndrome is hampering progress on the issue:
“Part of the problem, I think, of going around and promoting a wind turbine syndrome and going into communities and getting people scared about wind turbines is that it has muddied the water and it is distracting us from actually dealing with those small groups of people who have got a legitimate problem and do need us to be having some sort of debate about how we as a society work to help them with the issues that they are experiencing.”

The Committee’s records contain a wealth of documentation and perspectives well worth perusing.  The first link above takes you to the Committee’s page on the bill, where you can access a list (with PDF links) of all documents submitted to the committee by witnesses and the general public, as well as a transcript of the Committee’s hearings and testimony made there.

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