COLEBROOK — The Northwest Corner of Connecticut is noted for its beauty, but it is hard to enjoy from the basement of a house.
That is the situation faced by David and Jeanie Lawrence of Flagg Hill in Colebrook since two BNE Energy wind turbines were switched on last October.
Dr. Lawrence, whose home is 1,500 feet from the Colebrook towers, said the six people in his household have had varying responses to the low-frequency sound produced by the rotating turbines. The reactions range from those of his particularly sensitive wife — who immediately began to suffer headaches, high blood pressure, unsteadiness on her feet and insomnia — to a stepson and son who exhibit no symptoms at all, he said.
"We characterize my wife as the canary in the mine," said Lawrence, an internist in Winsted.
When his wife's symptoms appeared, Lawrence said he immediately attempted to mitigate her exposure by moving the master bedroom from the second floor to the basement, which is shielded by an earth embankment. They limit their time on the upper floors to a few minutes and wear earplugs at all times.
Lawrence said his wife's sleep patterns have been disturbed and that she often "pops awake," rather than waking gradually. He said he feels muddled in the morning and avoids going upstairs before he has to go to work.
"As a doctor, you don't want to go to work feeling muddled," he said.
Another stepson, who has been just as affected as his mother, doesn't have a haven in the basement.
"He has lost so much time at work he was terminated because of it," Lawrence said.
Lawrence said he was unaware a wind farm was planned when he bought his land in 2009. When he learned of it potentially happening, he began to do research. He consulted the work of scientists such as E.L. Petersen, whose survey of populations living near wind turbines in the Netherlands has formed the basis for what is known today.
Petersen and his colleagues concluded that wind turbine noise — especially low-frequency levels — affects people at much farther distances than generally anticipated, both inside and outside buildings.
Noise pollution from turbines has gotten both better and worse as turbines have been made larger, experts report. Improvements in design have reduced audible noise, but there has been an increase in low-frequency sound.
The Colebrook towers, once forecast to produce 1.5 megawatts of power, were increased to 2.85 MW during the five years needed to bring the project to fruition.
Connecticut regulations allow daytime audible noise from industrial zones to reach 61 dBA and nighttime levels of 51 dBA, more than 20 dBA higher than average night levels.
Regulations also forbid low-frequency sound in excess of 100 dBC, but, because sound level meters prioritize sound at audible frequencies, Rick James — a Michigan-based audiologist who often testifies against wind turbine projects — considers these as unsatisfactory for measuring the effects of a wind turbine.
Sound monitoring of the Flagg Hill site is expected in the coming months, as required by the Connecticut Siting Council, but it will measure only dBA levels, not low-frequency sound. Nor will it will measure spikes of low-frequency pressure believed to trigger nerve responses at sub-auditory levels.
Lawrence took his research and concerns about the "international problem" — one of his most frequent correspondents is in Australia — to the Connecticut Siting Council when the Colebrook project was being considered, but he said his input was ignored.
"I don't think there is any recourse at the Siting Council as they chose to dismiss my testimony," he said. "We will have to prove through the courts that the towers are violating nuisance laws."
To that end, he is preparing a survey of residents in a 3-mile radius around the Colebrook turbines.
"We have to put together scientific evidence," he said. "I'm still trying to get all pieces together."
Lawrence said "sound is energy — like being parked next to a car with loud music on. You can feel the vibration in your own car. It gets through everything."
And, like a ripple in water, it spreads out from its epicenter.
"Being downhill is actually a disadvantage," he said, referring to the location of his neighbors' homes. "Our house is better situated than some because its back wall faces the turbines."
Conversations with three of Lawrence's neighbors revealed that two believe their sleep patterns have been disturbed, while a third reported no symptoms at all.
James Simmons, a neighbor who works in the clean energy industry, reported no problems — only a slight noise he characterized as being like a refrigerator humming — and said his horses seem unfazed.
Farther up the hill, Eva Villanova said the noise varies with the position of the turbines.
"Sometimes I can't hear my television," she said, adding that she suffers from insomnia.
That's a reaction also reported by neighbor Scott Zbell.
Sleep disturbance is perhaps the easiest symptom to quantify, Lawrence said.
"Sleep data is pretty well researched," he said. "It is a common and prominent issue."
By contrasts, headaches — even though their location is unusual in that they are located in the back of the head — are harder to prove, Lawrence said. Damage appears to be cumulative.
"The longer you are exposed, the more problems you will have," Lawrence said. "Damage to the vestibular part of the ear (which provides a sense of balance and spatial orientation) doesn't go away."
"I'm not anti-turbine," he added, "but I am for safe siting. Connecticut is pretty crowded."
The Connecticut Siting Council did not return calls seeking comment.