A small group of residents in eastern El Paso County has spent at least $65,000 on research that they say should be enough to shut down an area wind farm.
The three families blame the 145 turbines at NextEra Energy's Golden West wind farm for the health problems they've experienced and the deaths of more than a dozen of their animals since the turbines began rotating in 2015. The human health impacts range in severity, from nausea and headaches to cardiovascular issues, said Sandra Wolfe, who lives near the wind farm.
"We feel like we are victims of NextEra and victims of the turbines," she said.
The complaints have raised questions about El Paso County commissioners' role in addressing the grievances. Commissioners approved the wind farm's construction in 2013 and OK'd changes to the plan in early 2015 after NextEra proposed erecting a 29-mile above-ground power line as part of the project.
On Thursday, commissioners held an executive session to seek legal guidance on the matter. The county attorney planned to discuss the applicability of state and local laws as well as the studies provided by the objecting residents.
The board will hold another public hearing, likely in late July, for residents to voice their concerns, said county spokesman Dave Rose.
The families have paid a Boulder-based acoustic specialist roughly $15,000 for two studies related to the low-frequency sound waves emitted by the windmills, known as infrasound, according to area resident Gavin Wince, whose family left their home in September to escape the turbines. The group spent the rest of the money on health studies, which cite residents' medical records and DNA test results to prove that the windmills are taking a toll on their physical well-being, Wince said.
But the wind farm's opponents have not yet released the medical studies because they believe NextEra could retaliate by targeting the practitioners who participated in the assessments, which include specialists in cardiology and neurology and an ear, nose and throat doctor, he added.
The wind farm has long been a source of controversy. In 2015, a group of residents sued the county for signing off on the project's construction, but the lawsuit was later dismissed when both parties reached an agreement. Residents' concerns have included potential health risks and negative effects on property values, although figures from the county assessor's office have shown that parcels in the area have appreciated since the turbines' construction.
Commissioner Mark Waller, whose district includes the wind farm, said worried neighbors have yet to provide evidence that warrants action from commissioners.
"All of the information that we've been given is anecdotal. We haven't been given any sort of medical documentation that shows a causal connection between the windmill operations and injury," he said. "It's incredibly frustrating. If this issue is as widespread and significant as they say it is, we should have evidence."
While dozens of residents live within 1 or 2 miles of the wind farm's boundaries, complaints are relatively few in number, according to NextEra. Of the roughly 15 complaints that residents have filed since construction was completed on the project, four or five remain unresolved, company officials said.
"We are committed to being a good neighbor and responding to any complaints or concerns that come to us in a timely fashion and in keeping with the process laid out by the El Paso County commission," NextEra communication Manager Bryan Garner said in an email, referencing the complaint resolution procedure outlined in the company's agreement with the county.
Objecting neighbors confronted commissioners at a March 23 meeting, when county staff and NextEra officials presented reports on the windmills' infrasound levels and the flickering effect, known as "shadow flicker," that occurs when the sun shines through the turbines' rotating blades.
Experts pointed to a collection of studies that found infrasound isn't hazardous to human health. Reports commissioned by the company were also presented, showing the infrasound and shadow flicker created by the turbines are in compliance with local regulations and zoning rules.
But opposing residents reference another set of studies linking windmills with adverse health effects. Acoustics investigator Robert Rand, who prepared the sound studies for residents, delivered commissioners copies of his assessments, which argue that the wind farm is not in compliance with state and county noise limits.
One of Rand's sound reports points out a dozen "errors and omissions" in one of the studies NextEra financed, including a failure to assess how noise levels adversely affect neighbors.
The second report Rand prepared measured acoustic pressures at the three families' homes, noting that the "blade pass frequencies" observed at the residences were "within the range associated to motion sickness." Rand's assessment cites the county's noise ordinance, which prohibits any sound that is "harmful or injurious to the health, safety or welfare of any individual." Under the county's agreement with the company, the wind farm must meet the standards established by the ordinance.
But Commissioner Waller said Rand's reports and other studies residents presented aren't "actionable" for the county.
"At best, they've got a civil cause for action against NextEra," he said.
The residents haven't ruled out a lawsuit, although they've struggled to find legal representation, Wince said. He added that attorneys from several big-name law firms in Colorado have turned them down, telling him their firms couldn't take on a corporation with such deep pockets.
"We have everything we need," Wince said. "The problem is that NextEra would be willing to put up an incredible fight."
According to NextEra's website, the Florida-based company accrued roughly $16.2 billion in consolidated revenues in 2016 and had 14,700 employees in 30 states and Canada at the end of the year.