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Social and economic impact of rural wind farms

CHAIR —Welcome. I understand that you have been given information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence.

Mr Hardie —Yes.

CHAIR —We have your submission. It is numbered 333. I invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Mr Hardie —Firstly, thank you for the opportunity to address the committee this afternoon. The first issue I would like to address is that warning bells have been ringing. The material I will quote comes from the submission to the Senate inquiry from Professor Robert McMurtry, orthopaedic surgeon and former Dean of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario and former advisor to the Canadian government. In 1990, 20 years ago, there was a NASA technical paper on wind turbine noise. It stated:

People who are exposed to wind turbine noise inside buildings experience a much different acoustic environment than do those outside … They may actually be more disturbed by the noise inside their homes than they would be outside ... One of the common ways that a person might sense the noise-induced excitation of a house is though structural vibrations. This mode of observation is particularly significant at low frequencies, below the threshold of normal hearing.

In 2006, the National Academy of Medicine of France noted the adverse health effects related to IWTs in a 2006 report. They recommended a set-back of 1.5 kilometres for 2.5 MW IWTs from dwellings. They also recommended an epidemiological investigation into the possible medical effects of wind turbines.

In 2007 in the United Kingdom, Dr Amanda Harry documented 42 cases of people exposed to IWT reporting adverse health effects. In 2009 in France, there was a court case and the decision mandated that an IWT facility shut down during night operations in order to prevent the sleep disturbance that the population had been experiencing. In 2009 in USA, Dr Nina Pierpont released her findings in the book Wind Turbine Syndrome. Also in late 2009, 60 Japanese residents living near IWTs reported health problems. Early in 2010, the Japanese government announced plans to conduct a four-year study on the influence of wind turbine sound on human health, including low frequency sound. In June 2010, Canada’s Ontario environment minister ruled that offshore turbines be at least five kilometres from the shoreline. In September 2010 Danish protests regarding IWT noise forced turbines offshore. Then in July 2010, the Dean report by Dr Robert Thorne reported, over the period April 2009 to March 2010, a total of 906 complaints had been made to the Wellington City Council New Zealand from a wind farm at Makara. In a similar period of 11 months—May 2009 to March 2010—a total of 378 complaints about noise were made to Palmerston North City Council concerning the Tararua wind farm from people living 2.1 to 3.1 kilometres from the turbines. In every country in the world where there are large IWTs, warning bells have been ringing.

Most Australians accept that the primary and fundamental responsibility of federal, state and local governments is to protect the health and wellbeing of the citizens over whom they govern. These three levels of government take their advice and guidance regarding health issues for wind farms from the National Health and Medical Research Council document, Wind turbines and health: a rapid review of evidence, July 2010, which is an 11-page document. In studying this document I raise the following points. I quote from page 2 of this document:

In particular the paper seeks to ascertain if the following statement can be supported by the evidence: There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms and that any potential impact on humans can be minimised by following existing planning guidelines. This statement is supported by the 2009 expert review commissioned by the American and Canadian Wind Energy Associations.

These two associations are not independent of the wind industry and therefore there is a conflict of interest. Furthermore, I question the statement that ‘any potential impact on humans can be minimised by following existing planning guidelines’. The current minimum setback from turbines for houses in Western Australia is 800 metres whereas the Victorian government has increased that to two kilometres. We know that as early as in 2006 the French Academy of Medicine was advising that houses be set back 1.5 kilometres from 2.5 megawatt wind turbines. We have a Senate inquiry because some Australians are suffering and clearly there is a percentage of our population who are living too close to turbines.

On page 5 of the document, in summary the document uses eight dot points to state that there is no reliable evidence that infrasound affects health or no peer reviewed scientific evidence that wind turbines have an adverse effect on human health. The first dot point is supported by research carried out in 1995, 15 years ago. In another dot point the research is done by the Canadian Wind Energy Association. In two other dot points the research is done by independent companies but prepared by, and I suspect paid for by, the American and Canadian wind energy associations. Therefore one of the dot points is 15-year-old research and another three dot points are supported by organisations with a conflict of interest. My conclusions in evaluating the eight dot points in their summary is that four of the dot points, that is 50 per cent of their argument, have been severely compromised.

On pages 9, 10 and 11, of the 27 references in the document that identify their year of publication, dates range from 1986 to 2010. The average date of publication is year 2005. Therefore at the time of publication of the National Health and Medical Research Council document in July 2010 the average age of the references used was five years. The age of the research references is relevant when one considers that in Australia rural inland wind farms, that is higher turbines using longer blades, have only been operating for three years or less.

On page 8, the conclusion, it says, and I quote from the document again:

The health effects of many forms of renewable energy generation, such as wind farms, have not been assessed to the same extent as those from traditional sources. However, renewable energy generation is associated with few adverse health effects compared with the well documented health burdens of polluting forms of electricity generation.

It makes no sense to solve a problem by creating another problem, and this conclusion would put considerable doubt into the minds of most Australians. It seems beyond belief that this NHMRC document has been relied upon by politicians and public servants at all levels of government in Australia.

Mrs Pam McGregor is a Kojonup farmer and she in fact clicked onto this document before I did—I am under oath—and I certainly did not prompt her. She asked two questions about the national health document by email. I have handouts for all the senators and I would ask you to read the replies to those emails. On page 2, the third paragraph of the NHMRC document states:

There are two opposing viewpoints regarding wind turbines and their potential effect on human health. It is important to note that these views are frequently presented by groups or people with vested interests. For example, wind energy associations purport that there is no evidence linking wind turbines to human health concerns. Conversely, individuals or groups who oppose the development of wind farms contend that wind turbines can adversely impact the health of individuals living in proximity to wind farms.

The individuals who oppose the development of wind farms do so on the grounds of adverse health effects. It is independent doctors with no vested interests who have identified patients with similar symptoms living in close proximity to wind turbines, including Dr Alec Salt, an American doctor whose research shows that ‘what you can’t hear can hurt you’. Those doctors are Dr Amanda Harry of the United Kingdom; Dr David Iser, a rural Victorian GP; Dr Nina Pierpont, a rural American paediatrician; Dr Owen Black, an American ear, nose and throat specialist and consultant to the US navy and NASA; and Dr Alec Salt of Washington University School of Medicine. Dr Salt’s study shows that infrasound increases pressure inside the cochlea and the vestibular organs, distorting both balance and hearing. Salt’s findings shatter the dogma that what you cannot hear cannot hurt you. The doctors also include Professor Robert McMurtry, a Canadian orthopaedic surgeon, former Dean of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario and former adviser to the Canadian government on health policy. In the last 2½ years he has spent much of his time—3,700 hours—researching the wind turbine health issue. His conclusions are that people living within two kilometres of turbines are in danger of experiencing adverse health effects. His 72 page submission to the Australian Senate inquiry is available on the web. There is also Dr Michael Nissenbaum, a Canadian doctor. His study shows 22 people living 1.1 kilometres from a wind farm displayed metabolic disturbances and psychological stresses that resulted in chronic depression, anger, headaches and auditory problems. All of these doctors contradict the findings of the National Health and Medical Research Council document.

There is another 64-page document headed Haste makes waste authored by a group of Canadian doctors, which I have available as a handout. Five of their conclusions were that the rapid review is a literature review with no original research, the vetting and quality of material cited in the rapid review is at best suspect and at time times ridiculous, crucial evidence gaps remain unaddressed, the National Health and Medical Research Council governing body ought to be concerned about the quality and the bias of the rapid review, and the reality of global reports of adverse health effects has not been addressed and the victims deserve consideration not denial. The National Health and Medical Research Council document bears the Australian coat of arms and it has been directly responsible for concealing potential health problems in relation to IWTs. As a result, state politicians, local government councillors and public servants at both levels have granted planning approval for large rural wind farms by allowing the positioning of wind turbines too close to residences. Hence, some farmers have been forced out of their homes and off their farms. Furthermore, some home owners living too close to wind turbines have also had to leave their homes for health reasons and have suffered the consequences of discounted property values. In short, this health document is a national disgrace.

CHAIR —Mr Hardy, we are going to run out of time and we will not have much time for questions unless you finish fairly shortly, please.

Mr Hardy —I have one page left. I have timed it for 3.45 pm.

CHAIR —We have until 3.30 pm.

Mr Hardy —Sorry, 3.30 pm.

CHAIR —Okay. But the point is that we have questions as well; you do not just speak for the full length of your time.

Mr Hardy —I take your point, Senator. I have timed it and I am on it, thank you. On ABC television in South Australia, on the 7.30 Report of last Friday, the 25th, Mr Rann, the South Australian Premier, was filmed being heckled by locals when opening a wind farm at Waterloo in South Australia. The people carrying the placards represent the people who are living too close to the turbines and are suffering health problems. Please note that not all individuals suffer. The Premier responded by pointing to the studies showing no negative health impacts. The sad reality is that this is just another example in Australia of a politician being hoodwinked by this National Health and Medical Research Council document.

Last week, I googled the Clean Energy Council home page. There is a very simple caption that asks, ‘Are wind farms noisy?’ I clicked on it and it shows turbines in the background turning quietly. In the foreground, there is a truck, a tractor, children playing under a hills hoist and a diesel motor being started up. They are noisy compared to the wind farm. But the noise is measured in decibels. Oil Mallee Association of Australia, on page 9 of the submission, has defined the difference between noise and sound. We believe that health problems from IWTs are caused by low frequency sound waves coming from the blades of the turbines. There is a saying that we all know: ‘We will only tell them what they need to know.’ The Clean Energy Council of Australia has not told any lies but when are they going to tell the whole story?

The submission from the Oil Mallee Association of Australia is a 14-page document. If I had to select three of the most significant sentences in the total document, it would include the following, which comes from page 11:

It is no coincidence that the considerable health problems are being experienced on the farms adjacent to the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere, Waubra. Clearly, as stated in the Dean Report ... there is a direct correlation between the size of the blades (length and breadth) and the amount of sound created as these blades pass the tower. Further to this, the number of towers and their placement is having a cumulative effect on the amplification of the sound.

The Waubra turbines are only 120 metres high. The frightening aspect is that now we have turbines of 150 and 190 metres proposed in WA—longer, wider blades with the potential to further increase the low frequency size. Senators, I conclude today by asking the question: when asbestosis reared its ugly head in this country, did the national health department, when they wrote the health document regarding asbestos, consult with and allow CSR, James Hardie and Australian Blue Asbestos, to have input into their health document? We all know the answer.

Senators, the tears that were shed in front of you in Ballarat represent the pain and the suffering of some Australians living too close to turbines in Victoria, New South Wales, and also now in South Australia. The national disgrace should not have been allowed to happen. We are simply requesting independent research into the low frequency sound coming from the blades and how that impacts on human beings. Until that is complete, keep our people 10 kilometres away from the turbines please. Thank you for the opportunity to address you.

Senator FIELDING —There have been some arguments that you have put forward that we need to put to the NHMRC this afternoon—in about 20 minutes time, I think. We have heard the other view from the view that you have put forward: basically, that the people who are experiencing serious health impacts are those people who believe there are going to be problems. Scaremongering has happened so people believe they are going to get sick and therefore they are getting sick. What do you say about that? That is what we have heard from quite a few people.

Mr Hardie —The Stepnells have come before the inquiry. I do not believe they are malingerers. I come from a farm that runs half as many sheep as them. They have a very large farm and they are now living in Ballarat. I believe that couple have been seriously affected by living too close to the turbines. I cannot believe the amount of cases across Victoria, New South Wales and now starting in South Australia where the people that are claiming to be sick. Consider, they are going to GPs in Australia; I do not believe that it is possible.

Senator FIELDING —The other argument that has been put forward is that most of the people complaining are just anti wind energy or sceptics. What do you say about that? Those are the arguments that we are hearing. The next argument is that there is no scientific evidence that there is a link. It is not peer reviewed. These other people are not peer reviewed: there is no peer reviewed evidence.

Mr Hardie —May you just ask me the first question again?

Senator FIELDING —Let us stick with the last one to start with. There is no scientific evidence. Basically everyone points to this document—the National Health and Medical Research Council document—and they say that all the other claims that are being made are not peer reviewed.

Mr Hardie —It is all very fine but at the end of the day you say that this is not peer reviewed and whatever. I have quoted mainly from Dr McMurtry. You know what he stands for in Canada. He has done the research—something like 3,700 hours into this problem.

Let us be realistic. One of the reasons we have the problem we have in Australia is that we are a Commonwealth country and we have in some ways emulated others. Of all the countries in the world with wind turbines Canada is in more trouble than most, and the reason for that is that they in fact have people living very close to turbines. I suspect our health document is very similar to theirs; after all, I have demonstrated that in the amount of content of the Canadian Wind Energy Association. If you go to Canada I think you will find that there are houses abandoned around a number of wind farms. The evidence that I have been checking on in these countries is there. It is very evident. People do not leave their houses. When they leave a house it is really not saleable. They do not walk out unless there is a very good reason. That is my opinion.

Senator FIELDING —There is claim and counterclaim. I have asked the wind energy people the reverse question. I am challenging each party as to why the other side should not be believed. I have just done that with you as well. How do we get some independence into this, do you believe? The claim is that a lot of the research that people are relying on is linked to or funded by a lot of the wind energy associations themselves. What is the way forward, do you think? You have suggested independent research.

Mr Hardie —That is a good point, Senator. We had a planned court case on another issue in Western Australia and we had to go east for a judge. The problem that is arising in Australia is that, especially on the eastern seaboard, it is going to be quite difficult to find independent researchers because some of the researchers have already worked on behalf of the wind associations and some of them have worked on behalf of people who are having health problems. So the point you make is relevant.

Senator MOORE —I want to follow up on the independence aspect, but I have one question apart from that. Is the McMurtry evidence peer reviewed?

Mr Hardie —I am not sure about that. The fact of the matter is that if we are looking at the qualifications of the man I should not think we would have too many concerns. He has consulted to the Canadian government on health issues. In fact when he was building his own home he very much wanted to be all renewable; he has solar cells on his roof. He looked at one turbine in his backyard and that was the first time—I think it was in 2008—he woke up to the fact that there was a real issue with health. From that point on he has spent a lot of time researching this issue.

Senator MOORE —I was just questioning in terms of the things we hear about the need for peer review. Many of the reports did not make it into the NHMRC, and certainly the questions about the quality of that process were considered to be non-peer reviewed. The documents they used were allegedly all acceptable documents based on scientific processes. We will follow up with them. But, as much of your submission did quote McMurtry, I was just asking.

Mr Hardie —This is McMurtry’s submission to your inquiry—72 pages?

Senator MOORE —Yes. I have read most of it. Nowhere in what I have read does he claim peer review. It was just a question about the scientific process.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you for your submission. I would like to talk about planning. Western Australia is probably the youngest area for wind farm development. Evidence we have heard from a number of the developers in the eastern states is that they have got quite a lot of sites that are proposed for Western Australia. So if we do not get the planning right we are going to end up with problems like the eastern states. At the moment the Commonwealth is doing overarching guidelines in draft form at the moment as to how the planning for wind farms could go on. They have got no jurisdictional say over the states because of the Constitution. Each state is doing something more or less different and then local governments are also involved in the planning. When we were at Ballarat in Victoria we had five local governments come and give evidence. And things have changed there: the rules have changed from the state and now they are throwing it all back to local governments to do the planning and make decisions. They are saying, ‘Look, we firstly have not got the financial ability or the expertise,’ so this whole planning thing seems to be a little bit up in the air. How do you feel about the planning issues in Western Australia, and especially just where the number of new wind farms end up being sited?

Mr Hardie —The thing that concerns me about New South Wales relates to the planning overrule policy they have over the local government level. That is fine, but if the information is wrong and the planning is unsafe, it means that the local government have lost any power to stop any industrial noise of any sort because they are overruled at a higher level. I think that is a frightening thing. We do not have that problem in Western Australia. One of the fortunate things that we have had here is the opportunity for rural wind farms to move into the eastern states. And so we have had the opportunity to learn from their experience and for that we are very grateful but that is no comfort to the eastern states.

The proposed wind farm in Konjonup, Broomehill Tambellup and Flat Rocks, I believe that, as far as shires go in Australia, they were well educated to the problems that wind farms can bring, and the shires will make their decisions in due course. I do not believe that happens in all cases. In fact, I think very little information is known within shires. To me, wind farms are not unpleasant to look at. When I go to Albany, I see them as quite graceful, but I do not really think that shires have the capacity to understand all of the ramifications of what can happen. I also have some reservations about actually taking large wind farms into highly productive rural land. I think wind farms are at their best in the high wind zones, on unproductive land and where there are not many people, which obviously is the coast. As soon as one goes inland you have to increase the size of the towers and the blades because there is less wind and it is more difficult to get away from where people are living. In fact, with the Flat Rocks project there were 28 houses within approximately 2½ kilometres of the turbines so it is very difficult to be removed from people, whereas on the coast on government land it is a different story.

The other issue that I am aware of is that I have heard of instances where there are restrictions on trees in the landscape once landowners go into turbines, are hosting turbines. The particular one I heard about was that if you were to plant trees you had to seek permission from the wind farm company to plant them. It had to be for stock purposes only and it was not to be a tree higher than five metres. We all know, being involved in agriculture, that a five-metre tree in height has a corresponding root structure underneath, which has a limited ability to draw up water compared to when you go into most of inland rural Australia, you are going into tree areas and environments where trees grow to 30 metres—some in fact grow to 40 metres—and their root structure is proportional to what is up top. They have this rule that within one kilometre of turbines you cannot plant a tree. Some of these wind farms stretch maybe six or seven kilometres through rural Australia and they could be two kilometres wide. If you add another kilometre at each end and on the sides, you have got a very large area, and you have changed the environment because you have changed the tree structure from something that was 30 metres high to five metres high. To me, they do not fit in inland areas.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. We have run out of time. I think we have given you a bit of homework, and there could be more because I am sure Senator Adams has more questions. Unfortunately, we are running very tight on time and we have gone over already. Thank you very much for your time and your submissions.

[3.33 pm]