FALMOUTH, Mass. — Following an outcry from opponents, Falmouth Town Meeting votes next week on whether to remove both of the municipally owned turbines, only three years after the first turbine went up.
If approved, Falmouth would become the first town in the country to tear down its turbines.
Residents’ Health Complaints
The turbines sit at the Falmouth wastewater treatment plant, which abuts a residential area. Several nearby residents said the turbines have been causing a range of health problems for them.
Blacksmith Shop Road snakes behind the treatment plant and is dotted with homes surrounded by woods. Outside the house of Neil Andersen, trees are littered with signs calling for the turbines to be shut down, saying “Support Our Neighbors: Stop the Turbines Now!”
“Not a day goes by that I don’t wake up trying to decide how I’m going to fight the turbines that particular day,” Andersen said. He says he has suffered financially and physically ever since the first turbine, Wind I, started running March 23, 2010.
Andersen ticked off his health problems: “Headaches, loss of balance, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, memory loss, unable to focus, unable to concentrate.”
“When the turbines are operating, it’s sheer hell for me,” added neighbor John Ford. “I don’t sleep like I used to sleep. I’ll wake up at night and my chest is pounding and I’m breathing heavily.”
Ford said his cholesterol has “gone wild” since Wind I started operating, and he was prescribed blood pressure medication for the first time.
Their complaints match others in communities with turbines, such as Fairhaven, Kingston and Scituate.
While many scientists say there needs to be more research, most current research finds wind turbines cannot cause the health problems Andersen and Ford said they have experienced.
A few studies do suggest that noise from wind turbines can disturb sleep, which, in turn, can cause health problems. Other research suggests the effects are psychological — for example, stress caused by annoyance from constantly hearing the rhythmic sound of spinning blades.
‘Fracturing The Community’
We went to three different turbines: in Hull, Scituate and Falmouth. The Hull turbine was audible, but had to compete with a lot of other noise from airplanes flying overhead in and out of Logan Airport, as well as wind from the ocean whipping by. Falmouth’s Wind I was by far the noisiest, sounding like a shovel scraping pavement in measured increments.
Certainly, it was not a scientific test. But noise in Falmouth was audible. In fact, the town decided to shut down the turbines at night because the noise was above state limits.
Whether the town should go further and remove the towers — and what went wrong in Falmouth — is the subject of heated debate.
The turbines are larger than originally planned, but Falmouth Energy Committee Chair and turbine supporter Megan Amsler insisted that after nine years of study the turbines were sited correctly.
She said taking them down would be a “rash” decision.
“It’s going to have a very detrimental impact on the wind industry,” Amsler said. “It’s going to set a horrible precedent for a very small group of people that are complaining about this.”
Amsler said the complaints are coming from less than two dozen households near the turbines. The town health department, where complaints are filed, could not verify the number of households that had lodged complaints.
“There are a lot of people who don’t want to get out and speak out against this because they’re friends and neighbors of these people and they just don’t, they don’t know what to believe,” Amsler said, adding that the three-year-long fight has gotten vicious: “I know that the selectmen have been harassed. I myself have been harassed.”
“It was fracturing the community,” said Falmouth Board of Selectmen Chair Kevin Murphy. “We were pitting neighbor against neighbor and we need to put this behind us to move forward.”
Murphy and the other board members unanimously agreed to put the question before Town Meeting on April 9. Murphy said that if the turbines stay, Falmouth won’t be able to do any other clean energy projects because this one has been so divisive.
“If we don’t learn from this and other communities in this state don’t learn from this that you can’t put these size turbines within half a mile or a mile of neighbors, well shame on all of us,” he said.
State, Other Towns Watching Closely
State energy officials, with their goal of expanding wind energy in Massachusetts, are watching all of this closely, but have been careful to not step in to the Falmouth fray.
Alicia Barton, head of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a quasi-public agency, would not say whether there were mistakes made in Falmouth, but she did say there were some lessons.
“We do know that the more upfront planning, the more community involvement and the more analysis that’s done upfront of potential impacts like noise … we do think that that will be likely to lead to more successful projects,” Barton said.
Barton would not comment on whether the clean energy center would help pay to remove the turbines, as requested by the town. Estimates range from $5 million to $15 million to remove the turbines and pay back federal stimulus grants and state money.
The center’s board is expected to discuss Falmouth’s request at its meeting Tuesday.
Falmouth turbine neighbors Andersen and Ford said the final decision on the two towers cannot come soon enough. Andersen said he thinks about moving every day.
“If I had the choice tomorrow I would move away and just hopefully never hear the word ‘turbine’ again in my life,” he said. But Andersen said no one would want to buy his house because of all the trouble he’s had living there since the turbines were installed.
For Ford, the choice is simple: “I don’t want to move. I like where I am. … I think the turbines should have to move.”
State and municipal officials are watching closely. If the Falmouth turbines do come down, it could set a precedent for other communities where residents have also complained, like Fairhaven, Kingston and Scituate.
4/3 Update: In March, WBUR called the Falmouth Health Department and was told the agency did not have data on the number of households that had complained about the wind turbines. After this story aired, Falmouth Board of Health Vice Chair Jed Goldstone contacted WBUR to provide the data. It shows that at a public hearing in May 2012, 25 households reported health effects and that the most persistent complaints came from 14 households. Goldstone noted that in some households, not everyone said they felt affected by the turbines.