AE.org - website of the Acoustic Ecology Institute
newsCommunityResourcesSoundscapesAbout UsJoin Us
aeinews Home

Puget Sound orcas face challenges from boat noise & a de-listing petition from farmers

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean No Comments »

As the US Federal government takes up a petition calling for the removal of Puget Sound’s resident orcas from the Endangered Species list, a lack of funding at NOAA continues to hamper efforts to enforce regulations meant to protect them from harassment by whale watching boats.  Seattle’s Q13 TV news team tells the sorry tale here, in both a text and 7-minute video version. Meanwhile, the area’s shipping din may increase yet again, as an EIS Scoping Period has begun as the Army Corps of Engineers begins planning for what could be the nation’s largest export facility, the Gateway Terminal, proposed for shipping coal to Asia. 

OrcaNOAA Fisheries announced on Monday that it would review the status of the southern resident population of killer whales, in response to a delisting petition from California farmers.  In addition to  boat noise, a decrease in salmon runs is a key driver of reduced orca populations, and protection plans for the orcas include protections for salmon, including maintaining river flows.  The farmers claim this is denying them the water they need.  The heart of the petition is a challenge to NOAA’s determination that this local population is genetically distinct and deserving protection, although the species as a whole is not threatened.

The Seattle Times has a good detailed article on the challenge, including this reaction from Fred Fellerman, who has championed the ESA listing from the beginning:

“Oh great, here is a chance to biopsy them and tag them and chase them all over town until we don’t have to worry about them any more,” Felleman saidTo hi.  m, the distinct behavior of the southern residents sets them clearly apart from other orcas. They eat only fish, while other orcas eat seals and other mammals. They have distinct family groups, dialects, greeting ceremonies and migratory patterns.

“If there was ever a poster child for this type of subspecies, it’s the killer whales,” he said. “It’s not just their genetics, it’s culture. These clearly are the tribes of the sea, and if you extirpate that population not only do you lose the genetic code, you lose a unique brain trust.”

The question of whether the southern resident killer whales are a genetically distinct population ran through the early years of the listing question, with NOAA initially determining they were not, a court ruling that the question should be studied more thoroughly, and a science task force finding they are distinct enough to warrant protection.  One of two populations in the area (the other ranges over a wider area, and passes through seasonally), the southern resident population is under a hundred individuals.

An article in The Province, a BC newspaper, fleshes out the controversy a bit more:

“Don’t forget that the whale’s listing is based on the government’s seat-of-the-pants determination in 2005 that there suddenly existed an unnamed and theretofore unknown subspecies of killer whale in the North Pacific,” says the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Liberty Blog. “Our delisting petition is not anti-whale, but it certainly is pro-farmer and pro-freedom.”

“The petition presents new information from scientific journal articles about killer whale genetics, addressing issues such as how closely related this small population is to other populations, and meets the agency’s standard for accepting a petition to review,” says a NOAA release.

The petition exasperates Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a Washington state-based non-profit advocacy group for Pacific Northwest whales, but he believes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is simply doing due diligence.

“I think NOAA is duty-bound to review it, but I don’t think they are going to do anything about it,” he said. “[The Pacific Legal Foundation] is dressing it up as science … but it’s way out of the consensus of geneticists.”

Australian Senate Committee rejects bill defining excessive wind farm noise

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines No 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.

WHOI researchers initiate long-term sound study at Cape Wind site

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Ocean energy, Science, Wind turbines No Comments »

Researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have begun a 2-3 year project that will monitor the soundscape at the Cape Wind site before, during, and after construction of the planned 130 wind turbines.  This is the first time such a long-term acoustic monitoring study has taken place at an offshore wind site.  

“We want to evaluate the importance of this kind of research for future offshore wind farm development, which is a rapidly growing field of interest in the U.S.,” Aran Mooney said. He and his colleagues are outlining a methodology for how acoustic monitoring may occur in other wind farm construction. Mooney said, “That will be valuable for industry, policymakers, and the public.”

Two kinds of acoustic recorders are being used: one records the full range of frequencies continuously for a week at a time; the other samples one minute of sound every ten minutes for 2-3 months, at frequencies up to 40kHz (thus missing echolocation clicks but capturing most other vocalizations of interest). “So we’re making the best of both worlds, putting one device out to get a really in-depth look for one week, and then we continue with the other device to get a sampling period of several months, then we replace both,” Mooney said.

During wind farm construction, pile driving will add significantly to existing human noise in the area; at European wind farm sites, some species tend to move  as far as 20km away during construction.  During operation of the wind farm, noise is not expected to be audible at distances more than a few tens or hundreds of yards, but this study will help to quantify exactly what frequencies are propagating into the waters.

Mooney would like to see the project also contribute to a growing research focus on using sounds to monitor overall environmental health of various habitats.  “Animals make sounds when they attract mates or reproduce, and you can track those activities just by listening,” Mooney said. “What I’d love to do with this project is to look at biological diversity. In a nice healthy habitat, you have a spectrum of sounds: low-frequency sounds of fish, then invertebrates a little bit higher, and then the seals and the dolphins.” The soundscape of an undersea area under an environmental stress would sound different; the impacts could be assessed by listening to what’s missing, for example.

For more on the project, see this page on the WHOI website, which also includes recordings of more than a dozen species of ocean creatures.

AEI’s 3rd annual wind farm noise report now available

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Human impacts, Science, Wind turbines No Comments »

At long last, I’ve completed this year’s overview of science and policy developments on wind farm noise issues.  It features over 50 pages of new material, along with about the same in Appendices consisting of three research summaries I wrote earlier in the year.  You can download a pdf version of Wind Farm Noise 2012 here

AEI’s three Wind Farm Noise annual reports go into depth on different topics, and they complement each other quite well, though each one clearly engages the issues with more detail and reflects a more nuanced appreciation of the topic than the ones that came before. You can access all three, and AEI’s other publications on the issue, on our Wind Farm Noise Resources page.

But today, this is the one you should take a look at! AEI Wind Farm Noise 2012: Science and policy overview

CA Coastal Commission denies seismic survey permit

Default No Comments »

The California Coastal Commission has rejected plans by Pacific Gas and Electric to conduct a seismic survey later this month to gain better understanding of earthquake faults near the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.  The CCC vote affirmed staff recommendations that the information gained did not justify the likely effects on ocean life.

DiabloTracksThe survey would have included about nine days worth of airgun activity; the airguns fire bursts of pressurized air up to four times per minute.  The sound created by the burst of air is loud enough to penetrate deep into the ocean floor, with echoes revealing geological information. The project’s environmental assessment documents project that the sound could be audible for up to 60 miles alongshore, and 150 miles offshore; sound loud enough to trigger behavioral changes extends for 2-3 miles, and sound loud enough to cause injury extends to about a half mile. The survey tracks (purple and blue above) come within a mile or so of one corner of a Marine Protected Area (orange outline above).

While most local species would be minimally affected (less than one percent of regional stock hearing sounds loud enough to trigger behavioral reactions), the potential impact on harbor porpoises were a sticking point for the CCC—75% of the local stock was expected to experience some level of behavioral change. (Ed. note: Harbor porpoises are known to be more sensitive to noise than many species; some environmental assessments extend the behavioral impact zone for them out to the audibility distance; I’m not sure if that was done here, but it would seem plausible, given the much higher proportion of the regional population expected to be affected.) Though PG&E said that any negative effects were likely to be minor and temporary (and NMFS agreed, in issuing draft federal Incidental Harassment Authorization in September). The CCC disagreed, in part because PG&E has already established that the Diablo Canyon plant can survive nearby earthquakes; some CCC members spoke in favor of simply closing the plant when it’s up for license renewal, which would negate the need for further earthquake study.

“These tests are not going to do us any good in terms of protecting the public welfare,” said Commissioner Jana Zimmer. “And on the other side of it, the impacts on the marine environment are very clear and I think have been understated.”

For more detailed coverage, see articles from the Santa Cruz Sentinel/San Jose Mercury News and The (San Luis Obispo) Tribune.  The most recent project description from PG&E is here; and the NMFS draft IHA includes tables detailing the projected numbers of animals to be affected.

Insects change calls to be heard above road noise

Default No Comments »

Insects have joined birds, frogs, and whales in the list of species that change their calls so that they can be heard above chronic human noise.  Researchers at the University of Bielefeld in Germany compared the songs of grasshoppers that lived near a road with those living in open grassland;  “We found that grasshoppers from noisy habitats boost the volume of the lower-frequency part of their song, which makes sense since road noise can mask signals in this part of the frequency spectrum,” said Ulrike Lampe, the lead researcher.

“Increased noise levels could affect grasshopper courtship in several ways. It could prevent females from hearing male courtship songs properly, prevent females from recognising males of their own species, or impair females’ ability to estimate how attractive a male is from his song,” she said.

Read more in this article from The Independent

Ancient whale song: louder than modern human-caused ocean noise?

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Ocean energy, Science, shipping No Comments »

AEI lay summary:
M.S. Stocker, J.T. Reuterdahl. Is the ocean really getting louder? 164th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, Oct. 22-26, 2012.  ASA press release

A paper presented at this fall’s Acoustical Society of America meeting has triggered a wave of provocative headlines about how whale-filled oceans of the past may have been “as loud as a rock concert” or how “Noisy whales made FAR MORE oceanic racket than humans do.”  The paper does indeed ask an innovative question: what was the ocean soundscape like in the pre-whaling days?  And its answer, while couched in a high degree of uncertainty, is also eye and ear-opening: ten times as many whales made a lot more noise than today’s diminished populations, perhaps adding up to overall noise levels that match those caused by today’s shipping, oil and gas exploration, and other human activities in the seas.

It’s probably a bit too acoustics-geeky for me to object to the “rock concert” comparison, but for the record, the paper itself never uses those two words alone or together!  (Though somehow the phrase slipped into the ASA press release; we’ll have to blame the editor or an author’s pre-conference sleep deprivation for the slip…)  In fact, thanks to their differences in density, measurements of sound in water are about 62dB higher than a similar sound level in air; thus, the mention of 126dB of whale sounds filling the ancient oceans would not be equivalent to a rock concert, but more like the 64dB sounds of laughter or a loud conversation.  Which, as it turns out, much better captures the essence of the historic soundscape as described by the authors:

The bio-acoustic environment of the pre-industrial whaling ocean could be correlated to the animal sounds in any biologically diverse and well populated habitat wherein the riot of birdcalls, the stridulation of insects, and the mammal vocalizations are the dominant noise contributors to the soundscape.

The question of ancient ocean sound levels is relevant because much of today’s thinking about the impact of human noise is predicated on research that shows global shipping increasing the ambient noise levels in the oceans by 10dB or more since the 1950’s.  This just happens to be the era in which whale populations were at their nadir, with several species having already become rare enough that it was no longer worth the effort to find and hunt them.  But as the authors stress in their conclusion, an ancient ocean full of whale song — along with the more widespread  sounds of the onomatopoeia-ic large fish, Grunts and Drums, or the “great schools of tuna miles across (that) would churn up the sea surface for days as they migrated past California’s Channel Islands” noted by early 20th century fishermen, which the authors note “would likely be as loud as or louder than even the most tempestuous sea state” — is a very different place than an ocean full of the noise of ship engines and airgun reverberations.

Animals have evolved to fill distinct acoustic niches, with their songs and calls at different frequencies, made at different times or the day or year, and using distinct rhythmic pulses; each species’ hearing is especially tuned, or filtered, to pick out the calls of its own species from the voices of others.  But, as the authors note, “the signature of mechanized ocean noise interference from shipping is broad-band, pervasive, and chronic, and more likely to mask across animal frequency and/or time domain filters throughout large areas of the ocean.”

Or as put so well by Tim Baribeau, it’s important to remember that “we could still be disorienting whales with our bizarre and intrusive industrial sounds. But it’s incredible to think that the oceans may once have been filled with a cacophonous background chatter of animal noise.”

The crux of the matter: is rural peace and quiet a “right”?

Human impacts, Wind turbines No Comments »

I just came across a comment that seems to me to cut right to the heart of the question of rural communities where wind farm noise is an issue. This particular comment is another of several made public after the controversial disbanding of a wind farm noise technical work group that appeared poised to recommend tougher siting standards; see this earlier AEI post for that story.  But it hardly matters who made the comment below, or in what particular context, because it really distills the fundamental point of contention:

“We know that a significant number of persons are annoyed by wind farms. . . . I understand that many people live or move to rural areas for the country views and quiet. But individuals do not have rights to quiet or nice views.”

(For the record, the comment is in a letter from a former manager of the state renewable energy program, to an incoming manger.)

The argument is often made that turbine noise is far less intrusive than what city dwellers live with all the time, or that wind farms are not as loud as tractors, trucks, snowmobiles, or other mainstays of rural life.  These both skirt the central question, which is whether people, or communities, in rural areas can be justified in their complaints about noise, or in adopting ordinances that require significantly lower noise levels than the industry is used to (or perhaps even lower noise limits for turbines than what is accepted in noise from the everyday activities of rural life).

Many of the towns and counties that have recently established larger setbacks or lower sound limits are attempting to protect their residents’ rights to the rural quality of life and sense of place that they live there to enjoy.  The most extreme of these have setbacks large enough (2 miles) or noise limits quiet enough (as low as 25dB at night) to effectively offer absolute protection to existing peace and quiet; in so doing, they may also be effectively banning industrial wind development (though allowing for easements to build closer to willing neighbors may offer a way forward in towns where there aren’t large enough areas of open space to accommodate such standards).  

This is something that is likely to be played out in court, as wind developers, and at times residents wishing to lease their land to developers, have claimed that these strict rules represent illegal “takings.”  This week, the town of Peru, Maine, became the latest to adopt a strict wind ordinance, and the threat of such a legal challenge was a major point of contention as the planning board and Board of Selectmen discussed the proposal.  (The ordinance passed 585-30.  It calls for a 1.5 mile setback to property lines, noise limits of 35dBA during the day and 25dBA at night, and permanent sound monitoring after construction to assure compliance.) 

Kingston Board of Health faces packed house on wind farm noise

Human impacts, Wind turbines No Comments »

Kingston, MA, is the fourth town in the area to experience widespread public complaints about noise from small wind farms.  As in Falmouth, Fairhaven, and Scituate, town officials have begun holding hearings to hear from affected residents.  On Monday, the Kingston Board of Health voted to consult with the town’s attorney, to explore what options may be available to them.  There are two privately-owned wind facilities in town; the discussion this week centered on a single turbine owned by Independence Wind, while previous controversy has swirled around three turbines on land owned by Mary O’Donnell.  See the Boston Globe article for full details on the meeting; here are some highlights:

Kially Ruiz, co-owner of the Independence turbine, which began operating in May, said that he would not change the turbine’s operations unless there is proof it’s out of compliance with state noise limits; O’Donnell concurred, saying “Everyone in the room Monday knows all my turbines are well within the limits for noise.”  As a result of previous complaints, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center is scheduled to hire a consultant to do sound measurements this winter, with results by spring.  This may well turn out to be another project in which turbines operating within legal sound limits still cause noise problems.  Such experiences have spurred some community groups and acousticians to recommend lower noise limits in areas close to many homes.

Ruiz insisted that his turbine is basically inaudible in surrounding neighborhoods, which have a highway, train station, and wastewater treatment plant in the area. “I think the neighbors are hearing a lot of things.  It’s just not the turbine.”  But Board of Health member Daniel Sapir begged to differ: “I went to the Reillys’ home at midnight, and I heard the whoosh,” he said. “You may say it’s not physically possible, but it’s happening. It’s real.”

Neighbor Doreen Reilly spoke of sleepless nights when that whoosh permeates the house, and said their lives “have been turned upside down. This has caused more anxiety than I have ever experienced. Our peace has been stolen from us. . . . We want our lives back.”

As the sun moves north along the horizon, shadow flicker has become an issue for her and others; they asked the health board to order the turbines to be shut down at night and for the hour or so a day when flicker occurs at nearby homes.  Of the flicker, she said “It causes headaches….It’s in every room of my house, and it makes you want to flee your home.”  

It’s not just sleep and peace that affected. Sapir, the Board member, experienced a dire impact that cannot be so easily brushed aside: late-afternoon flicker ruining a Patriots game: “It was so annoying I couldn’t enjoy the game,” he said. “The poor dog was cowering in the bathroom.”

New paper quantifies sleep, mental health effects near wind farms

Health, Human impacts, Wind turbines 5 Comments »

AEI lay summary:
Nissenbaum, Aramini, Hanning. Effects of industrial wind turbine noise on sleep and health.  Noise & Health, September-October 2012, Volume 14:60, 237-43  Online access

A paper recently published in the journal Noise & Health is getting a fair amount of notice in the media; this article from The Telegraph is perhaps the most detailed coverage, noting that “the findings provide the clearest evidence yet to support long-standing complaints from people living near turbines that the sound from their rotating blades disrupts sleep patterns and causes stress-related conditions.”  This article from Ontario includes comments from co-author Jeffery Aramini and Canadian government and wind industry spokespeople.

SEE UPDATE AT BOTTOM OF POST re: Critique of this study contracted by AWEA/CanWEA and released on November 14. 

The recent paper is the formal published version of research previously presented at a 2011 conference, and summarized by AEI earlier this year.  The study employed three widely-used health questionnaires – Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) to assess sleep quality, Epworth Sleepiness Score (ESS) to assess daytime alertness, and the SF36 for general mental and physical health – to compare sleep and health among 38 people living within 4600 feet of two wind farms in Maine to that of 41 people living in the same areas, but 2-4 miles from turbines. The authors conclude that “the levels of sleep disruption and the daytime consequences of increased sleepiness, together with the impairment of mental health, strongly suggest that the noise from industrial wind turbines results in similar health impacts as other causes of excessive environmental noise….Industrial wind turbine noise is more annoying than road, rail and aircraft noise, for the same sound pressure, presumably due to its impulsive character. This has led to an underestimation of the potential for adverse health effects of industrial wind turbines.”

The paper is being hailed as solid peer-reviewed proof of sleep and health effects of living near wind farms, though its findings appear less dramatic than the reporting.  It certainly does add some important, solid data that will be helpful in quantifying what have been largely anecdotal complaints and case reports.  A similarly rigorous survey in New Zealand, using a related WHO health-related quality of life questionnaire, was published in Noise & Health last year by Daniel Shepherd (also included in the AEI summary noted above).

While the new study found average sleep impairment and daytime sleepiness to be higher among those living closer to turbines, and the average “Mental Component Score” of the health assessment being lower among turbine neighbors, the data shows moderate trend lines, rather than dramatic differences.  Below is the data for the PSQI (lower scores reflect better sleep):

Nissenbaum PSQI WEB500

As you can see, there is a wide scatter of sleep quality – from the top to bottom of the scale – both among turbine neighbors and those living far from turbines.  This dramatic individual variability is, I’m sure, typical of the population in general, and so any trend line at all is a finding of note.  Still, there appears to be little indication that sleep quality is strikingly worse among neighbors, with the difference being apparent as a modest shift in the average.

The impact on sleep was most significant on those living closest (within 750 meters/2460 feet), where the average PSQI was 8.7, as compared to a PSQI of 5.6 among those living the farthest (over 5300m/3.3miles); there was a much smaller difference between the two middle groups (average PSQI of 7.0 at a 2500-4600 feet versus 6.6 at 2-3 miles). More striking perhaps is that 78% of the nearest neighbors, and 66% of the entire neighbor group, had a PSQI above 5, considered a threshold of concern, as compared to just 44% of those living over 2 miles from turbines (because of the wide scatter, the overall 66/44 difference was not statistically significant).  Even more notable may be that 12 (32%) of those within a mile had scores of 10 or more, as compared to only 6 (15%) of those over 2 miles.

Sleep disruption is widely considered a primary precursor for stress and other health effects, including headaches, emotional instability, difficulty concentrating, and possibly higher blood pressure. While this study did not find that those living closer to turbines have any notable difference in the Physical Component Scores (which includes pain, vitality, and physical function), they did find a reduction in the Mental Component Score, which assesses social functioning and emotional problems. As you can see below, while again the trend line shows a modest shift in the average scores, here the distribution of scores is quite dramatically shifted among those living closer:

Nissenbaum MCS WEB500

The overall average MCS was 42 among turbine neighbors, and 53 among those living at a distance; both lie well within the 35-60 range that is considered typical of most people.  Those with scores below 30 are at significantly increased risk of clinical depression and need of mental health care; as you can see, the likelihood of this is much higher among those living closer to turbines.  We might note as well, though, that there is a solid cluster of turbine neighbors with high MCS scores, which reminds us that negative effects are far from universal. Still, just half as many people closer to turbines score over 60, the point considered a threshold of extremely solid mental health; similarly, only 7 (18%) of neighbors score over 55, as compared to 20 (49%) of more distant residents.

This study is an important step forward in our assessment of sleep and health effects around wind turbines.  It’s a stretch to tout the results as “proof of health effects,” as some of the press coverage implies, as the results don’t show dramatic or inevitable effects on sleep, and in fact no difference in overall physical health. However, the study provides quantitative confirmation that living near turbines can have measurable effects, and lays the groundwork for follow up studies.   As the authors note in their conclusion, this kind of study needs to be replicated more widely to prove causation, and “further research is needed to determine at what distances risks become negligible, as well as to better estimate the proportion of the population suffering from adverse effects at a given distance.”  Here’s hoping that studies like this and Shepherd’s will indeed spur continued research that moves our body of knowledge forward.

And one more finding of note: Among people living 2400-4600 feet (.45-.87 miles)from turbines, 35% said their sleep is worse at home than it is when they go away from the turbines.  But twice as many, 70%, said they wish they could move away from the area (78% of those living closer than 2400 feet would also like to leave their homes).  This is yet another reminder (as confirmed by the Shepherd study) that severe impacts on quality of life and sense of place are often much more common than are health effects.  (In addition to the intrusion on rural sense of home and place for many, impairment of rural quality of life could well trigger to the stress that may underlie some of the health effects.)  While it’s important to keep digging to clarify the extent and mechanisms of sleep and health effects, we shouldn’t lose sight of the larger, and in some ways more fundamental, questions about rural quality of life.

UPDATE, 11/16/12: Well, that didn’t take long. AWEA and CanWEA (the US and Canadian wind industry trade associations) commissioned an Ontario environmental sciences firm to  review the Nissenbaum et al study; the authors critique the methods and findings as reported.  You can see the critique here, or download a version with my comments (some of which agree with the critique, and some of which question whether technical issues really reflect shortcomings in practice). After years of stressing that there’s no data to suggest a relationship between wind farms and sleep or health effects, it seems important to the industry to shoot down the under-funded research that’s taking place where community response has been notable.  While it’s certainly valid to point out shortcomings in any research that’s out there, the same degree of diligence is rarely applied toward pointing out the limitations in the studies being cited as indications that health effects are no great concern.  This rapid critique is an example of the current internet-driven trend toward waging science by press release (again, not without some justification, since this study is being widely touted as “proof” by anti-wind activists). More useful would be the funding of solid epidemiological studies of health and sleep around operating wind farms, including some where complaints are common and some where complaints are rare.

32 neighbors file noise complaint at new VT wind farm

Human impacts, Wind turbines 1 Comment »

The formal noise complaints have begun at Lowell Mountain, Vermont, even before the project is fully online.  Thirty-two neighbors filed a complaint with the state Public Service Department after two days of troublesome noise this week from ten of the eventual 21 turbines.  Low clouds may have contributed to the noise levels, which woke several people in the early morning hours of November 3, and continued through that day and the next.

UPDATE, 12/3/12: Green Mountain Power reports that the excessive noise on the weekend of November 3-4 was caused by a build up of wet snow on the blades. GMP spokesman Robert Dostis says that if neighbors had called them about the noise, the turbines would have been shut down immediately.

About half of the people who signed the letter live within a mile and a quarter of the turbines (6 within a mile, 9 more within a mile and a quarter), with most of the rest between two and three and a half miles away (7 heard it from over 3 miles).  Many noted that the noise was clearly audible inside their homes. 

VT Lowell half mile ringThe Lowell Mountain project has been contentious from the start, with mountain preservation activists blocking construction at times.  During construction, blast debris from the site crossed property lines of some neighbors, leading to a legal back-and-forth in which land owners were temporarily prevented from being on those parts of their property (where some individuals set up tents in an effort to block the blasting).  Kingdom Community Wind, the developer, was pleased that no one lived within a half mile, and few within a mile (see map above; blue ring is half-mile), and confidently quoted a DOE estimate that at just over 1000 feet, the turbines would be no louder than “a quiet bedroom.”  And though the project is popular among many in the region, it appears that we are about to be hearing from another community where turbine noise causes more widespread push-back from those living nearby than the reassuring assumptions would suggest.

UPDATE, 11/15/12: A local radio station adds this response from Green Mountain Power’s Dottie Schnure, who said the noises were an anomaly. “There are some very specific conditions if they happen at once– based on wind speed, weather conditions, moisture in the atmosphere– that can create noise. So, when that happens we are able to modify our operations so we do not create a noise issue.”  Schnure says residents are encouraged to call up and report excessive noise, something that wasn’t done immediately in this case.

UPDATE, 11/9/12: See this good piece on a Vermont independent media website; the reporter visited with project owners and opponents the day after the above letter was circulated by the Nelsons.

UPDATE, 11/8/12: A local paper, the (Barton) Chronicle, has published an article detailing some of the comments of those hearing the turbines last weekend; the article is not yet on the paper’s (limited) website, but may appear at this link soon. It’s archived on the National Wind Watch site here.  Three people living two to three miles away thought is sounded like a distant jet, while another thought it was wind from an approaching storm. “I had to agree with my wife, finally, that it was not just the wind over the mountains,” said David Lawrence, over three miles away, “If that is their sound it’s totally unacceptable.”  Don and Shirley Nelson, among the closest neighbors at just under a mile, have long opposed the project; still, they were shocked at the severity of the noise. “I knew it was going to be bad,” Mr. Nelson said Monday. “1 had no idea it would be this bad.”

“It was just like being tied to a chair with a train going by,” Ms. Nelson said. “And that train took all weekend to go by.” Inside her home, Ms. Nelson added, “it sounded like a terrible chimney fire.”

A man working in his sugar bush between one and two miles from the turbines, called it “the goddamnest roar you ever heard in your life.”  He and his son were unable to hear each other, even yelling, when about a hundred feet apart in the woods.

Geoffrey Commons of the state Public Service Department said this week, “We will gladly take complaints, and we are keeping a record.  Noise monitoring will be done according to a plan … that will not start until all the turbines are in operation” Mr. Commons said.

When it issued the project a certificate of Service Board set “a strict, objective standard” for maximum turbine noise. It limits sound to 45 decibels outside a neighbor’s home, and 30 decibels inside their bedrooms. “If they’re not meeting that,” Mr. Commons said of GMP, “the board has been very clear that they’ll have to make changes in order to meet it.”