For several months, residents in El Paso County have painted a 145-turbine wind farm near Calhan as a monster.
A pair of advocates regularly address the Board of County Commissioners, and other landowners near the town of fewer than 800 people have used the Sheriff's Office's Rural Enforcement and Outreach Unit in Calhan as a place to vent about NextEra Energy's Golden West Wind Energy Project, which was completed in the fall.
An announcement Tuesday from Xcel Energy, one of the United States' largest electrical providers, could lead to louder voices speaking out against wind farms in eastern Colorado.
Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said the company could begin a project in 2016 to place another 300 turbines in undisclosed locations east of Interstate 25. Whether El Paso County would be in the mix for more turbines has not been determined.
"There's not a great deal of detail to it yet," Stutz said in a phone interview.
Xcel buys electricity from the Golden West farm, said Steve Stengel, spokesman for NextEra Energy, which owns the wind farm near Calhan.
Concerns in Calhan
El Paso County residents accusing NextEra of negative effects from the wind farm say they've had headaches, nausea and dizziness because of the turbines, inaudible, low-frequency sound waves known as infrasound, and a phenomenon that occurs near windmills called shadow flicker.
Sheriff's deputies with the Calhan office also said residents blame the turbines for chickens that won't lay eggs, dogs that run away and at least the death of one horse. The deputies, including Sgt. Ray Gerhart, said people fear well water could get electrified from underground wires and that groundwater will become depleted and lead to dangerous sinkholes.
Those concerns and the fear of compromised property values led to a since-dismissed lawsuit against the county last year.
One woman's story
Kory Feick, a woman who owns a 40-acre ranch southeast of Calhan, met with The Gazette on Thursday to share her story of headaches, nausea and loss of balance that began after dozens of wind turbines were built near her land.
From Feick's property, 138 windmills can be seen. Feick has talked with doctors and psychologists. She takes multiple medications, including anti-anxiety and motion sickness medicine. But, the experts are yet to definitively determine the cause of her disorientation.
Feick sat Thursday in an outbuilding on her property with its windows covered, intentionally avoiding the chance of seeing the spin of the turbines. She became increasingly emotional as she told her story.
"Just the spinning all the time makes me sick to my stomach," said the 64-year-old who moved her Yorkshire terrier dog breeding business to eastern El Paso County in 2006.
Feick spends most of her time indoors, keeping blinds at her home nearly shut. She leaves just enough space to let in some light, but makes sure that the spinning turbines are out of sight.
"It's visual for me," she said. "I always have a feeling of claustrophobia."
Feick has relied on two of the kennel workers for outside chores that she used to perform. She worries that she won't be able to tend to her vegetable garden this year, a task she said brings her great joy.
The woman continues to wonder if her troubles are just her or if there is some truth to reports of an illness referred to as "wind turbine syndrome." Feick figures she's probably just more vulnerable to the constant motion of the rotors than most.
She said a friend, who is a nurse practitioner, insists that the turbines aren't responsible for her symptoms.
"I said, 'You keep telling me that, but then why am I going through this?'," Feick said.
After the interview, Feick left the building, obviously fearful of catching a glimpse of the rotating windmills. Feick wiped away tears and hesitated, looking down at the ground and away from the turbines.
Possible noise pollution
A landowner who lives with a large wind turbine about 50 yards from his front door told sheriff's deputies that the hum of the windmill is a disruption. Gerhart said the man fears that in the hot summer months he and his family will not be able to open their windows at night.
The man has not signed an official complaint but is concerned that the sound from the whooshing rotors could be in violation of the county's noise ordinance. According to the ordinance, noise levels in residential areas are not to exceed 55 decibels during the day or 50 at night.
Gerhart told The Gazette that he is doing a study before asking the man to sign a complaint. The deputy has not found a time when the conditions are right to accurately measure the turbine noise. He said the rotors seem to be the loudest when wind speeds are at a steady 17 to 19 mph. But Gerhart said noise from Calhan's daily wind makes measuring the decibel level a challenge.
"Just standing in the open, the wind noise can be more than 55 decibels," Gerhart said.
County attorney Amy Folsom said at Tuesday's Board of County Commissioners meeting that noise complaints are handled by the Sheriff's Office but enforced by the 4th Judicial District Attorney. No other formal noise complaints have been received, Gerhart said.
Are the claims legit?
Baaron Pittenger, an El Paso County spokesman, said in an email that many of the claims "are undeniably false."
Gerhart also wonders whether residents in the Calhan area have reason to be concerned. He said several people were against the idea of the project, but once construction began on the turbines, complaints diminished. Gerhart said more recent complaints have come from a select few.
"A lot of the complaints come from people who don't have a windmill on their property," he said.
As for the science behind health issues related to the turbines, studies have concluded that there is not enough evidence to implicate the equipment as the cause.
A 2011 study conducted by Environmental Health, a public health journal, said that annoyance and stress factors for people living near turbines are most likely at the root of the problem.
The study says, "self-reported health effects of people living near wind turbines are more likely attributed to physical manifestation from an annoyed state than from the wind turbines themselves."
Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney in Australia concluded in a 2012 article that "wind turbine syndrome" is psychogenic, calling it a "communicated disease spread by anti-wind interest groups."
"People can worry themselves to sick," Chapman said.
Stengel said NextEra Energy is required to respond to complaints about the Golden West project within 30 days. Stengel echoed Gerhart, saying that the number of complaints have "gone down significantly" since the 145 turbines became operational in October .
"We are literally just receiving a few," he said, noting that less than a dozen people have been calling NextEra's complaint hotline (855-218-2083) since October.
Most of those concern noise and shadow flicker. Stengel said his company completed a recent study on shadow flicker and determined that "nonparticipating" residents in the Calhan area should be experiencing flicker for less than 30 hours a year. Stutz said support for the wind farm has been overwhelming when compared to the backlash from eastern El Paso County residents.
"(Complaints) should in no way diminish the significant amount of support that we have had and will continue to have for this project," he said. "Just because there is a small group opposed to the project shouldn't overshadow the majority."