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After 100 years away, whales rediscover New Zealand, where they used to be the noise nuisance!

Animal Communication No Comments »

SoRightWhale mom calfWEBSouthern right whales have begun giving birth in the waters around New Zealand.  Beginning in the 1920’s, none frequented waters around the New Zealand mainland, after an intensive decade of hunting in the 1800’s decimated populations.  In the 1990’s,  a few scattered sightings began, and in recent years, females and calves are started utilizing sheltered bays. According to Emma Carroll of Auckland University, the whales appear to have lost the knowledge that New Zealand was a valuable winter and calving habitat, but the early exploratory trips by individual whales seems to have led to it being “rediscovered.”

Ironically, considering the growing concern over the impacts of human noise on whales worldwide, early settlers in Wellington complained that whales in the harbor there kept them awake at night!  How the times have changed….

In Round 2, Falmouth turbine dismantling fails to gain town meeting support

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines No Comments »

A month after Falmouth’s Board of Selectmen voted to recommend dismantling of the two town-owned wind turbines, a Town Meeting vote fell seven votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary to authorize borrowing money to do so.  A follow-up measure authorizing $100,000 to develop proposals for decommissioning will be discussed as the Town Meeting continues tonight; since that measure won’t require borrowing money, it will need a simple majority.  The Selectmen plan to put the question of decommissioning before the entire town during a May 21 town election. (In Falmouth the Town Meeting is a representative body of about 300 residents.)

UPDATE, 4/11/13: On the final night of Town Meeting, a 90 minute discussion resulted in a measure that will put the $100,000 question before the full town in the May 21 election, rather than authorizing that money to begin to be spent immediately; in addition, this money may only be spent if the town as a whole votes to dismantle the turbines. At its April 11 meeting, the Board of Selectmen agreed to put a binding referendum on the May 21 ballot, approving additional tax levies to cover deconstruction of the turbines.  Coverage of this discussion and vote is here.  Also, the town meeting in nearby Scituate voted down a non-binding citizens proposal to urge revocation of the local permits for a single turbine that has also spurred complaints from its nearby neighbors; coverage here and here.

Last week, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center said that it would consider forgiving the town $2 million in Renewable Energy Credits already paid and due to be delivered in the future, but only if the turbines were not dismantled, and the town did not impose any noise restrictions more stringent than state regulations.  This represents a small part of the estimated $12-15 million total necessary for decommissioning; over $10 million of this is outstanding loans, which the town hopes will be reduced via debt forgiveness by the state for one turbine, and possible state financial assistance for the other.  In the recent vote, though, the Town Meeting was considering a measures that would authorize the town to spend up to $14 million, since state support is uncertain.  The proposed borrowing would raise average property taxes by $48 per year, or a total per household of about $800.

FalmouthWEBThe two town-owned turbines had been projected to create a net revenue of several hundred thousand dollars a year, in electricity saved at the town Wastewater Treatment Plant, electricity sold on the open market, and Renewable Energy Credits.  However, for the past year, since state DEP noise monitoring found noise levels exceeding state limits in the nearby neighborhood at night, the turbines have been shut down at night, and so operating at a deficit of about $100,000 a year due to the significantly diminished output. This recent article in Cape Cod Times provides a history of the turbine project in Falmouth, the emergence of impacts among neighbors, and the town’s efforts to decide how to respond.

At the town meeting, local green energy advocates urged a “no” vote, saying that it would be more  cost-effective to buy houses from those most upset with the turbine noise, while two Selectmen spoke in favor of the measure, because of the current annual losses, the need to heal the split in the town, and the fact that a town Wind Turbine Options Process group that met for several months came to the conclusion that, among several final options, decommissioning was the best choice.  

If the May 21 town-wide vote agrees to dismantle the turbines, the matter of borrowing funds to complete that process will return to the Town Meeting at another of its biannual sessions.  Meanwhile, town officials will continue to develop plans to navigate the “considerable complexity” of arranging all the necessary financing, contract revisions, and special legislation that will be needed to complete the process.

Victoria tribunal calls for more health effects evidence during 6-month pause before reaching wind farm permit decision

Health, Human impacts, Wind turbines No Comments »

CherryridgeA environmental planning Tribunal in Victoria, Australia recently completed 28 days of hearings about a proposed new wind farm above the Trawool Valley.  In a recent statement and preliminary report, the Tribunal noted that health effects were the central issue, and that the testimony presented left them still unable to make a clear determination about whether the wind farm will pose an undue impact on human well-being: “In summary the Tribunal has been made acutely conscious of the questions but finds itself in a less than satisfactory evidentiary vacuum regarding the answers.”

UPDATE, 11/27/13: The Tribunal has ruled that the wind farm can be built.  It will be the first new wind farm constructed since Victoria adopted a 2km setback standard.

The Tribunal notes that it found the evidence of health effects to be both consistent and convincing, though both the extent of the problem and the cause were far less clear. It also notes that many (though not all) of the health effects referred to in the literature occurred at distances of less than 2km, which is the statutory setback in effect in Victoria.  Getting more clarity on how common effects are beyond that distance appears to be at the heart of the Tribunal’s decision to postpone a decision for six months:

The Tribunal considers that the issue of health and wellbeing raises two distinct questions. The first question is whether there is a causal link between sound pressure emissions from wind turbines and adverse health effects on nearby residents. The link may be physiological or psychological. However, given that the respondents expressly disavow that the impact is psychological and that the so-called “nocebo effect” lacks any empirical basis, the inquiry in this case must be as to whether there is a physiological cause. In this regard Mr Cooper hypothesised that wind turbines may emit a particular low frequency “signature” that gives rise to the problem.

One difficulty facing the satisfactory resolution of this question is that there appears to be no overlap of expertise between the acousticians and the health experts. The acousticians can measure the noise but are unable to say what effect it has on human health. The health experts can identify the health issues but are unable to connect those issues with particular levels of noise or sound pressure. It is this that creates the need for interdisciplinary studies.

If the first question produces an affirmative answer, the second and equally important question is what is the incidence of health problems amongst the nearby residential population, and how does that incidence vary or attenuate with distance from the wind turbines. Obviously the problem must be given greater weight by decision makers if 50 per cent of the population surrounding a wind farm is affected rather than 5 per cent.

The full statement linked above (which also has a long section on noise annoyance and sound limits), and an excerpt containing the section on health and well-being, paint a pretty solid and concise picture of the Tribunal’s quandary.  The South Australian EPA is conducting a study around the Waterloo wind farm in the next couple of months that may help answer at least some of the questions, and the Tribunal is eagerly awaiting these results.  It has also invited both sides in the dispute to submit further information that contribute some of that interdisciplinary insight mentioned above.  

UPDATE, 10/23/13: The next round of evidence will be presented to the Tribunal, as requested, this week.

Recent psychological papers may impact participation in Ontario wind farm survey

Health, Human impacts, News, Wind turbines No Comments »

A surge of widely-publicized papers purporting to show that those complaining about wind farm noise are being unduly influenced by expectations of harm, or have personalities that are easily upset, may be fostering distrust among residents of Ontario who are randomly selected to participate in an upcoming large-scale survey funded by the provincial government and an ongoing 5-year study by University of Waterloo researchers.

This post, for example, notes that “mischaracterizations are coming out from all around,” and encourages residents to beware of any new surveys that appear to be asking questions about one’s overall quality of life or any annoyances other than wind farms.  The concern seems to be that general quality of life or attitudinal/psychological questions can contribute to the sorts of extreme claims that have filled the press recently, suggesting that “nocebo” type effects are the primary cause of health symptoms and annoyance complaints.  A detailed comment in the post includes a letter sent by one resident who returned a recent University of Waterloo survey without completing it, noting that “questions appear to be constructed in a manner that can be manipulated to achieve any desired result.” Here’s another site that similarly characterizes the UW survey as a political and wind industry sham.

All of these surveys, in order to be representative, need to have responses from a representative sample of both people being bothered and those who are not bothered.  Here, as in some previous research local efforts, distrust has grown to the point that those most affected may not participate.  While for many of those being kept awake or otherwise affected by nearby turbines, the question at hand appears very simple—the turbines are the issue, and they affect me—a useful survey will need to do more than simply ask about turbine health effects.  There are a lot of contributing factors, and it can be useful to consider many of them.  

While such surveys may be subject to misleading interpretations at times, the fact is that surveys and studies are always interpreted differently by those on opposite sides of the issue—where one side sees proof of their supposition, the other sees vague results, poorly designed data collection, or exaggerated significance.  It’s clear that both the idea that turbine noise has nothing to do with the problems being reported, and the idea that turbine noise is inevitably harmful for those living nearby, are overstating what studies and surveys have found. Still, such disputed studies provide raw data that can help quantify the extent of issues and become valuable sources of clear information for those on both sides of the issue, and especially for local decision-makers. 

In particular, if those most affected decline to participate in the Ontario studies, these surveys will come to conclusions that far fewer people are bothered by noise than are, in fact, affected.  This can’t be good for anyone.  Rather than fear the possible misinterpretations, it would be better to help assure that these surveys obtain results that reflect the actual extent of the noise problem.

UPDATE, 4/15/13: Some area residents are telling the University of Waterloo researchers that it’s already too late to measure pre-construction stress and other health markers.  This study is meant to provide a “before and after” picture of local sleep and overall well-being.  But, according to  an article in Niagara This Week, residents question whether it will do so:

“You’re not starting in the right place,” resident Debbie Hughes told Bigelow, during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting. “We are already affected by the turbines. Our stress is already high.”

A dozen residents, all opposing wind turbines, shared similar messages. “It’s too late, two years too late,” said Helen Kzan, wearing an NRWC receptor 2418 bib. “I’ve been to the doctor. They told me to move.  My stress level has skyrocketed. My physician told me my stress will kill me before the wind turbines.”

While what the locals are calling “the pre-stress level” is likely already be elevated, it would still seem likely that the study could identify any trends in sleep disruption and more widespread stress that may be caused by the noise of the turbines once they’re built (at least, if those affected choose to respond to surveys). The whole situation highlights the ambiguities that exist in trying to determine the cause of any health effects that do occur.

Judge overturns snowmobile exemption to USFS Travel Management Rule

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Human impacts, Vehicles, Wildlands No Comments »

When the US Forest Service initiated far-reaching Travel Management planning in 2005, mandating that all National Forests analyze off-road vehicle use on their lands, and specify roads and trails where off-road vehicles would be allowed, wilderness and quiet-use advocates were thrilled.  Before that, many forests allowed free-ranging use of ATVs, dirt bikes, and other vehicles on any trail not specifically designated as off-limits with posted signs.  Thanks to the all-too-common practice of removing such signs, along with the more-than-occasional off-trail use that created “new” trails over time, the new rules, which turned the tables by allowing vehicles only in areas clearly designated for their use was a big step forward.  Those traveling by foot could look forward to having a bit more separation between themselves and lovers of motorized recreation; often, ridgelines separated basins where visitors could expect to find substantial natural quiet.

Snowmobile copyExcept in winter.  The groundbreaking Travel Management Rule specifically exempted snowmobiles from being subject to the limits contained in each forest’s local Travel Management Plan.  The reasoning was that many of the damaging aspects of unfettered ORV use were less relevant in winter; in particular, damage to vegetation and streambeds, and all the related risks of increased erosion.  These impacts are indeed significantly less in winter, though some soil compaction can occur beneath snowmobile trails over meadows.

But one key impact from motorized use can actually be worse in winter: the noise footprint of the vehicles.  Thanks to better sound transmission in cool air and across frozen, leafless landscapes, the sounds of snowmobiles often travel much further than the sounds of ATVs and dirt bikes in summer. This can clearly impact other forms of recreation, as well as disturbing animals who are sensitive to noise intrusions. In Idaho, lovers of “quiet recreation” worked hard to get snowmobiles included in national and regional travel planning, and when they failed, the national Winter Wildlands Alliance took the question to the courts.

This week, a Federal Judge in Boise agreed that the exclusion of snowmobiles from an otherwise comprehensive approach to travel management planning was “arbitrary and capricious” and “contrary to law,” ordering the Forest Service to revise the 2005 Travel Management Rule within 180 days to include snowmobile management.  According to the AP:

Mark Menlove, executive director with the Winter Wildlands Alliance, said the decision was a monumental victory for backcountry skiers and other winter recreationists seeking a peaceful experience in the woods.  The group’s goal is to not shut down snowmobiles in national forests, but force the agency to designate specific boundaries that carve out distinct areas for those who want to explore on powered sleds and those preferring skis, snowshoes and hiking boots.

“Many of our members use snowmobiles more and more to get to certain places, so we’re not in any way asking the forest service to ban them,” Menlove told The Associated Press on Monday. “But we are asking for some balance there, where our constituents can go and find peace and powder snow in the backcountry.”

While this ruling applies only to National Forests in Idaho, it may lead to similar reviews and expansion of travel management planning nationwide.