MONTPELIER - A doctor who has studied the health effects of a commercial wind power project in northern Maine brought his conclusion to the State House Friday morning, May 7.
"There is absolutely no doubt that people living within 3,500 feet of a ridge line arrangement of 1.5 megawatts or larger turbines in a rural environment will suffer negative effects."
The conclusion is in a statement distributed at Dr. Michael Nissenbaum's press conference, held in the middle of one of the busiest days of this year's legislative session.
His statement is of local interest because, in terms of both size and distance, it would apply to the proposed wind project on Lowell Mountain.
Green Mountain Power is seeking permission to erect up to 24 towers with a capacity of 2.5 or 3 megawatts each. And GMP has said the towers would be at least 3,000 feet from the nearest homes. (Exceptions are the home of the resident who would host most of the project, and a hunting camp that GMP overlooked until it was drawn to the company's attention.)
For projects on a ridge line, Dr. Nissenbaum said Friday, turbines should be 7,000 feet from homes, at a minimum. (That would be well over a mile, which equals 5,280 feet.)
The doctor said his findings, which are disputed by the wind industry, are based on interviews with 22 of about 30 adults who live within 3,500 feet of a ridge line arrangement of 1.5 megawatt turbines in Mars Hill, Maine.
As reported in this newspaper, people who live near that project began to complain about the noise it made shortly after it began to operate.
Of those 22 people, Dr. Nissenbaum found, 18 reported new or worsened chronic sleep deprivation, nine reported new chronic headaches, 13 reported stress, and 17 reported persistent anger. More than a third reported new or worsened depression, and all but one of them said the quality of their life had been reduced.
Such problems did not appear in a parallel study of a control sample of 27 people living about three miles away from the project, Dr. Nissenbaum reported.
The problem, the doctor said, is that would-be wind power developers employ sound engineers who use standard instruments to measure sound levels in the normal range that the human ear detects most easily.
"The devil is in the details," said the doctor, who for two years has focused on the physics and potential for adverse health effect of the energy emission related to industrial wind turbines. That statement comes from an introduction to Dr. Nissenbaum distributed by Energize Vermont, the group that brought him to the press conference, and to a forum in Rutland the day before.
While the experts work in terms of pure, steady sounds, the doctor said, the turbines emita complex tone which "is registered as louder than a pure tone, and is more effective in waking you up."
Using a recording to demonstrate, he said that the turbines emit a pulsing sound, which again can affect the listener more than a steady tone.
Low-frequency sounds seem ominous to people, he said. "As humans we're evolutionarily wired, and there's some indication that low frequency noises indicate threats."
Low-frequency sounds can cause structural elements in houses to vibrate, and amplify the effect, Dr. Nissenbaum said.
He showed a photo of a tent in the backyard of a home that sits in the middle of a large wind project in Ontario. The resident moved into the tent so she could sleep, Dr. Nissenbaum said. That would make no sense, he added, unless being inside the house made the sound worse. He quoted from the resident's journal: "The house is humming again tonight."
The woman moved away from the project after the wind developer bought her home. Her story was detailed in the Chronicle in December 2009.
People who can't sleep get sick, Dr. Nissenbaum said, and some people find the throbbing sound of wind turbines particularly annoying - "a plane that never lands."
"Annoyance leads to sleep deprivation illness as day follows night," the doctor said.
The worst part of it, he added, is when people are offered psychological help to deal with their problems with wind turbine noise. Such people don't need a psychologist, Dr. Nissenbaum said, "they need the turbines placed further away from their home."
One of the few legislators at Friday's press conference was Representative Rachel Weston, a Democrat from Burlington. She said she had moved to the city from a small town, and gradually grown accustomed to a variety of urban sounds.
People can get habituated to some sounds, Dr. Nissenbaum said. "But there's something unique about wind turbine noise that prevents habituation. There is something unique about those lower-frequency noises."
The doctor was talking about individual perception, Ms. Weston argued, not about science.
"It's not about my perceptions," she said. "It's about the physiology of my body."