BOARDMAN -- Dozens of wind turbines west of Boardman are so noisy, nearby homeowners say they're keeping them awake at night and even making them ill.
"It's not healthy for us," Dan Williams said of the 240-foot-tall turbines he can see from his hilltop home. "It's like a freight train that's not coming or going."
Williams is among neighbors along Oregon 74 demanding that Morrow County enforce state noise regulations on the Willow Creek Wind Energy Project or revoke its land-use permit.
More than that, they're part of an emerging backlash to an alternative-energy technology that most revere as clean, green and essential to reducing emissions that contribute to climate change. As turbines sprout across Oregon, people who live near the sweeping blades are raising their voices about noise, spoiled views, lowered home values and health risks.
In January, a Massachusetts company yanked plans for a wind farm outside The Dalles after opponents complained that it would be too close to homes, ruin spectacular Columbia River Gorge vistas and put wildlife at risk.
Other critics, including some in Oregon, cite work by a New York physician who coined the term "wind turbine syndrome" to describe effects -- such as headaches, dizziness and memory loss -- of living near the machines.
"This thing is not rare," Dr. Nina Pierpont of Malone, N.Y., said of the syndrome, "but it doesn't affect everybody."
Industry representatives dismiss such talk. Shawna Seldon, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C., said her group is unaware of any peer-reviewed research linking wind turbines and negative health effects.
Likewise, Mike Logsdon of Invenergy, the 6-year-old Chicago company that built the Willow Creek farm, said of neighbors' complaints: "We don't believe there is anything to it."
With Oregon on track to triple its wind-energy production in coming years, the clash is sure to intensify.
Oregon wind farms generate 1,000 megawatts, said Lou Torres, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Energy, enough to power as many as 300,000 homes. Farms to produce an additional 2,000 megawatts are in the works, he said, giving the state a total of about 2,000 turbines, many taller than the Statue of Liberty when blades are pointed up.
"When that (work) is completed in the next couple of years, we will probably be fourth or fifth in the country on wind energy," Torres said. "Oregon is moving very quickly."
The new farms -- 90 percent on the wide-open Columbia Plateau in Morrow, Sherman, Gilliam, Wasco and Umatilla counties -- include what may become the largest on Earth: the 305-turbine Shepherds Flat Wind Farm on 32,000 acres straddling Gilliam and Morrow counties. The Oregon Facilities Siting Council approved the 909-megawatt farm, being developed by Caithness Energy of Chicago, on July 25.
Williams, a 40-year-old construction contractor, said the Willow Creek turbines' swish-swish and thump-bang often wake him up. His live-in girlfriend, Heidi Hartman, 34, said she's "starting to notice internal effects, jitters" from the vibration and noise.
Wind-energy companies downplay the noise, Williams said. "They said this is going to be about as loud as your refrigerator in your house, which is a crock."
Neighbor Mike Eaton, who also lives within a half-mile of a Willow Creek turbine, said the spinning blades are noisier than people realize. He's measured 67 decibels with a handheld monitor beside his home, he said, much higher than the 36 decibels allowed by state law.
Not only that, the retired furniture maker said, "I can hear windmills at my house from Arlington, 12 miles away."
Eaton, 61, said the turbines give him nausea by aggravating inner-ear and balance problems he's had since a 1966-67 tour in Vietnam subjected him to the constant pounding of an Army 155 mm artillery piece.
"I cannot live where I'm living now with these decibels and vibrations," he said.
Officials pay attention
Carla McLane, Morrow County planning director, said health issues never came up during planning for the 72-megawatt Willow Creek project. The county approved the farm in 2005, and turbines began operating this past December.
But Ryan Swinburnson, an attorney for Morrow County, said officials take the neighbors' complaints seriously.
"The county's position is if there is a violation, the violating party needs to correct it," he said.
With elimination of an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality noise-control program in 1991, the counties are on their own, said the DEQ's Frank Messina in Bend.
Torres, the state Department of Energy spokesman, also doesn't dismiss the complaints. Officials "still don't know enough about the noise factor" because little research has been done, he said.
"We know more about the effects on birds and bats," he said.
Invenergy has hired a company to gauge noise from the Willow Creek farm's 48 turbines, said Logsdon, the spokesman, which should fulfill a county demand for independent monitoring. Invenergy expects results in about a month, he said.
Ultimately, the company could buy noise easements from the nearby homeowners or possibly buy the properties or close turbines close to homes. Or the homeowners, if they aren't satisfied with the county's response, could pursue their complaints in court.
"An industrial plague"
Pierpont, the doctor, who has an upcoming book about the dangers of wind farms, says turbines should never be built within two miles of homes. The low-frequency sound affects the inner ear, she said, causing problems such as sleep and learning disorders, headaches, dizziness, anger, irritability, depression, memory loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), mood swings and panic attacks.
As wind machines proliferate near where people gather, she said, "wind turbine syndrome will likely become an industrial plague."
Money is another factor, straining relationships among usually friendly rural neighbors. While the machines bother some landowners, they're a revenue bonanza for others. Seldon, the industry spokeswoman, said landowners typically get lease payments of $2,000 to $4,000 a year per megawatt.
In Oregon, Sherman County farmer John Hildebrand, 82, for example, earns about $30,000 in annual lease payments for the 11 turbines operating on about three acres of his land. He knows of other farmers, he said, who get much more.
That has Logsdon suspecting sour grapes.
"Where people don't have turbines on their property and aren't being paid for them, they don't want to look at them on their neighbors' property," he said.
But Williams thinks energy companies should compensate not only the landowners but other affected homeowners as well. He wants Oregon and its rural counties to enact setbacks that would place turbines farther from homes.
"If the setbacks were done properly," he said, "none of this ... would have happened."