Brown Co. Board of Health in 2014 declared turbines in the Shirley Wind Farm emit low-frequency noise that poses health risks. About 20 families experienced health issues they blame on the turbines.
In a devastating setback for people living near the Shirley Wind farm, Brown County's health director on Tuesday declared that insufficient evidence exists to link wind turbines to illnesses suffered by people who live near them.
Residents of Glenmore and Morrison — and people living near wind projects throughout Wisconsin — had packed a meeting room at Brown County Cooperative Extension. Many hoped that Health Director Chua Xiong would order Shirley Wind shut down.
But Xiong, her voice sometimes breaking, said the scientific evidence clearly linking windmills to sleeplessness, nausea, irritability and other health problems just wasn't there.
"It breaks my heart," she said. "I've spent thousands of hours on this ... even on Thanksgiving when I was supposed to be with my family, I was out (in Shirley). I feel your pain."
Her decision, at a special meeting of the Board of Health, followed 90 minutes of comments from members of the public who blamed various illnesses on wind turbines. The Board in 2014 had declared the turbines in the Shirley Wind Farm, in Glenmore and Morrison, emit low-frequency noise that can endanger health. That's believed to be the first time a board of health has issued such a ruling.
Xiong's announcement left many in the crowd of almost 80 struggling to know what to do next. Some have been battling since the wind developed opened in 2010.
"We've spent years, years, literally years, and thousands of dollars. Careers affected, families affected, marriages affected, trying to get this stuff done. We can't even get a board of health, a health director, in our very own county to act," said Steve Deslauriers, who lives near the wind farm. "We've been going to our state. We've been talking to our national representatives. There is nothing we can do. That's why we are here. We are your friends and neighbors. We can't get action here. How can we get action out of the state?
"We can't get anywhere, and our family and friends are suffering! What do we do?"
The board and Xiong have met repeatedly behind closed doors during the past year to study options related to the wind development, and clearly had concerns that a ruling against Duke would trigger a lawsuit. Board members had indicated lately that they were seeking a decision in the residents' favor, but stressed that the decision was Xiong's.
The ruling frustrated board members as well.
"All of this goes on Chua," board member Dr. Jay Tibbetts told a member of the public after the meeting. "We've done all we can, The problem is with our director."
Duke Energy Renewables, which operates the site, has said repeatedly that sounds produced by the turbines cannot be linked to health problems. North Carolina-based Duke, which operates more than 1,000 turbines around the country, purchased Shirley Wind in 2011.
Wind-energy supporters and opponents have followed the issue with interest because of potential impacts the decision could have had on wind-energy projects. Environment & Energy, a newsletter published online, said in September the pending ruling could send "shock waves through the industry" if it linked wind turbines and human illnesses.
Because of those high stakes, Tuesday's meeting attracted people from western Wisconsin, and from Fond du Lac County, who were hoping for a ruling they might use in their battle against wind farms in their communities.
"I can't stand it," said Darlene Miller of St. Cloud, near Fond du Lac, her voice breaking. "My ears feel like they're bleeding. The worst thing is I can't hardly read — even my Bible, which tells me to forgive."
Wind-farm opponents have long insisted the turbines can harm people, livestock and, indirectly, farm crops. Those complaints echo claims by some scientists that windmills can produce sleep disturbances, low-frequency noise, stray voltage and a phenomenon called "shadow flicker" linked to motion sickness.
Some livestock owners have said their animals stopped reproducing after turbines began operating. And turbines are said to affect migratory routes of some birds, which can have a harmful effect on nearby farms because there are fewer birds to prey on insects.
Glenmore resident Robert Smurawa blamed wind turbines for problems that forced an area mink farm to shut down. He lives two miles from Shirley, but said sounds it produces are audible at his house.
"Those are industrial wind turbines; they don't belong in a residential area," he said. "I was really, really hoping Brown County would help us. I'm just heartbroken."
Wind-farm operators, in response, point to studies saying there is no clear link between turbines and the health issues claimed by people who live near them. Studies in Massachusetts and Canada do not connect turbines to illnesses reported by people living near them, though one southeastern Massachusetts community began shutting its turbines off at night after neighbors complained of sleep problems.
Operators also point out that wind produces energy without burning fossil fuels or using expensive and potentially dangerous nuclear material, meaning they pose less risk to the environment.
Electricity produced at Shirley, which can power about 6,000 homes, is sold to Wisconsin Public Service Co.
Wind turbine page from the Brown County Board of Health: http://bit.ly/1CtatJH
Brown County Citizens for Responsible Wind Energy: http://www.bccrwe.com
Duke Energy Renewables: http://www.duke-energy.com/commercial-renewables