Turbine skeptics believe, in this case, science is on their side
CHATHAM-KENT — Every morning since he lost the use of his well, Dave Lusk wakes up and tries not to let the anger seep in. But when he makes a trip from the water cooler in the kitchen and back to his bathroom vanity to wash up, it’s a reminder of the precariousness of his water supply.
Lusk blames that fact on the wind turbines being built nearby, and the companies developing them.
The 51-year-old owns a farm near Wallaceburg — in north Chatham-Kent, near the northeast shore of Lake St. Clair — that has been in the family for four generations. Lusk is among a large number of local rural residents who believe the problems with their well water owe to the interaction between local wind farm development and the area’s unique geology. The sedimentary bedrock — dark in colour and fine-grained — lurks beneath most of Chatham-Kent. It’s known to contain sulphur, carbon, and toxic heavy metals.
Lusk says his well was drilled by his father half a century ago and had always run clear — until sediment clogged it last October. Now, the water is the colour of tea and when poured, and small particles sink to the bottom of a glass.
“We’ve waved the red flag from day one and they just keep pushing through,” he says of the companies spearheading the 34-turbine North Kent Wind 1 project that surrounds his farm, and which is undergoing final testing before beginning operations later this year.
When wind turbines began appearing on Ontario’s rural horizons in the late 2000s, they were hailed as an environmentally friendly way to generate green energy. Controversy soon followed as people living near the structures complained of noise, health problems, and negative effects on property values as well as the environment.
Ensuing government research debunked some of the claims. A 2014 health federal health study, for instance, showed that “annoyance” was the sole condition found to increase as levels of wind turbine noise increased. (The report did note that community annoyance was statistically related to health effects such as migraines, blood pressure changes, tinnitus, and stress.)
But events in Chatham-Kent raise the possibility that the massive wind catchers pose unique and under-considered risks to the region’s environment, and the health and safety of its residents.
In January, for instance, a wind turbine buckled in Chatham-Kent. A dramatic photo of the 160-tonne turbine bent like a straw made national news. Local Progressive Conservative MPP Rick Nicholls questioned the standards used for the structures and called for the wind farm’s remaining structures to be inspected. It also prompted a local petition calling for all wind turbines across the country to be inspected. The owner, Terraform Power, is still investigating the cause and in the meantime has stopped the operation of the other turbines on the farm.
A less visible — but arguably much graver — issue to emerge involves the question Lusk and his neighbours are asking the province and wind turbine developers: What do they really know about the underground impacts of wind turbine vibrations? And how to those vibrations interact with the characteristic local bedrock?
Picking up bad vibrations
Lusk is a member of Water Wells First, a grassroots group of about 60 families, their friends, and relatives, based north of Chatham. Residents living among the 55-turbine East Lake St. Clair wind farm, commissioned 2013, formed the group three years later to voice their complaints about vibrations affecting local wells. But they had no proof.
So when Samsung Renewable Energy and Pattern Development proposed the nearby North Kent Wind project, its future neighbours feared they, too, might experience water quality problems. They organized, and took baseline water samples to potentially help prove any claims regarding their water quality later on.
Kevin Jakubec, spokesman for Water Wells First and an area farmer, says the concern is that vibrations — either from pile driving during the construction phase or, eventually, the everyday operations of the turbines — might disturb the fragile Kettle Point black shale bedrock and contaminate the ancient aquifer that serves as the local source of well water. The worry was justified: It is well established that vibrations from pile driving can damage nearby structures.
As for ordinary turbine operations, one recent Canadian study found a relationship between the vibrations and ground material within 100 metres of the structure.
Moreover, Water Wells First contends that the company and ministry didn’t take the special characteristics of the local geology into account. Residents realized their worst fears as the project began the construction phase last summer. Nineteen wells began to experience sediment problems, Jakubec says — nearly a third of the 64 wells that the group members had tested at their own expense. Bill Clarke, a hydrogeologist for Water Wells First who gathered and analyzed the samples, says follow-up testing showed the affected wells experienced changes in water turbidity, amount of particles, colour, and rate of flow.
While he says some of the changes were marginal, others were alarming. In one instance, the black shale particle count jumped from 47 particles per millilitre to 681,939 — with nearly half of the particles being as tiny as those found in cigarette smoke.
Tiny particles are potentially dangerous because they can be too small ever to settle to the bottom of a well, nor can they be controlled using conventional water filtration systems. Heather Gingerich, a medical geologist based in Ingersoll, says the acidic atmosphere in the stomach can break down the binding between a clay-based shale particle and any heavy metals attached, allowing the metals to settle in other areas of the body rather than to pass through our digestive system.
“What is actually happening out there as best as I can put together,” Clarke says, “is that there are vibrations that are happening down around the 20-metre level, where the top of the shale is taking place.”
The vibrations — from pile driving, and later, from the turbines’ operation — create waves like the ripples that fan out in water when people throw rocks into a pond. When the waves from different turbines intersect, they can either cancel each other out, he says — or amplify the effect.
“If you have a well at that intersection where waves are really reinforcing each other,” it means the shale at the base of the well is being shaken as hard as it would be in an earthquake. That kicks up the particles, and you’re “going to see your water go a [dark] colour.”
The water: ‘certainly unappealing,’ but is it dangerous?
Pattern Development, which is developing the farm with Samsung Renewable Energy, defends the preparatory research on the project. Jody Law, a Pattern project developer, says the environmental assessment to obtain the renewable energy approval was rigorous. The developer monitored wells and vibrations during the construction phase, which Law says is a new requirement from the ministry. Sensors were used to monitor vibrations on some (but not all) turbine locations as they were being planted into the ground.
The developer inspected all of the complaints it received (16, according to North Kent Wind’s website), and has determined pile driving isn’t to blame for any problems local residents are having with their well water.
This month, the ministry supported those conclusions — and also declared the water was safe to drink despite the sediment. “Water containing fine particles could appear cloudy — or turbid,” a ministry representative wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to Paul and Jessica Brooks, the property owners with the especially high black shale particle counts. “Turbid water is certainly unappealing but according to the Chatham-Kent Medical Officer of Health, in the absence of bacterial contamination there is no health hazard from undissolved particles in water.”
The Council of Canadians has backed the local grassroots group in its fight to raise awareness about its concerns. Mark Calzavara, the Ontario regional organizer, says that given the evidence that suggests there’s a problem with wind farms in Chatham-Kent, the environment ministry should do its own testing. Instead, it has chosen to take the word of developers’ hydrology consultants that the vibrations aren’t harmful.
“It’s clear that they’ve just decided to sacrifice these communities. Whoever has their water damage, tough luck.”
In an email responding to TVO’s written questions, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change responds in part: “The ministry takes concerns about groundwater quality very seriously and we are actively holding the company accountable for addressing complaints related to changes in well water quality and/or quantity.”
Jakubec says there are ways to fix the problem — if the group can ever convince the ministry the vibration issue exists. Adding dampeners to problem towers is one way, or, once a well is affected, specialized filtration equipment that can handle small particles could be installed.
For Lusk, a solution can’t come soon enough.
Three days after his water disappeared, North Kent Wind’s developers began supplying him with huge water containers of non-potable water and jugs of drinkable water. Law says that Pattern has been delivering the water to other residents who have complained about well water quality since construction began. They’re being good neighbours, he says.
After the ministry sent its letter to the Brooks, however, Pattern announced it would stop the water deliveries.
Water Wells First will seek an injunction to prevent North Kent Wind’s developers from removing the temporary water tanks. It’s also seeking a judicial review of the ministry’s decision that the wind turbine construction did not damage area wells.
As well, the group wants the Ontario Ministry of Health to conduct a health hazard study, and the NDP is joining that call.
Water Wells First’s protests over the past several months have included a sit-in and road blockade, and Jakubec hints there will be more action to come. “We're not going quietly into the night, as the Premier is hoping for.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.