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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

LAURIE, Dr Sarah Elisabeth, Chief Executive Officer, Waubra Foundation


CHAIR: Welcome. The Waubra Foundation has lodged submission 197 with the committee. I now invite you to make a short opening statement, at the conclusion of which I will invite members of the committee to ask questions.

Dr Laurie : Thank you for the opportunity to give evidence. The Waubra Foundation strongly supports any proposal that will help protect the health of any people currently being harmed by excessive noise, whether they are residents or workers, regardless of the source of the noise. We therefore strongly support this particular bill. It is our understanding that the bill will have no effect on wind developments where there are not excessive noise problems.

The Waubra Foundation was established initially to advocate for research into the health problems being reported by people living and working near industrial wind turbines. Sleep disturbance correlating with exposure to operating wind turbines is one of the most common problems reported. As a result of sick people approaching us for help, our work has expanded over the last 18 months to include helping residents adversely impacted by excessive noise, from sources and activities including coal seam gas compressors in Queensland and in the USA, coalmining in the upper Hunter region and gas-fired power stations, specifically at Uranquinty in New South Wales and Port Campbell in Victoria.

There is an excellent description of what can happen to people impacted by noise, in quiet rural areas, in chapter 5 of Sharon Munro's book Richland Wasteland, which I have with me. The chapter is called 'Clearing the country' and this is precisely what happens. Sharon also describes the use of confidentiality agreements to silence sick people. This use of confidentiality agreements to silence sick people is part of the wind industry too for both the wind turbine hosts and nonparticipating neighbours, as Senator Back revealed in his speech in the Senate on 30 October. I believe the only reason for these agreements used by noise polluters is to keep this growing public health problem from the gaze of the public and public health authorities. The mere existence of these confidentiality clauses suggests that noise polluters and the professionals assisting them are well aware of the problems.

Most doctors remain ignorant of the connections between sound frequencies in the lower part of the sound spectrum and health problems. However, acousticians have known of the connections for some years. This ignorance amongst doctors has been compounded by the omission of a crucial document from the NHMRC's Rapid Review of 2010 into the adverse health effects of wind turbines, which details what was known about the effects of low-frequency noise, regardless of the source. This is despite the lead author of that crucial document, Professor Geoffrey Leventhall, being one of the peer reviewers of the NHMRC document. I have here the document that was omitted. It is called A review of published research on low frequency noise and its effectsdated May 2003, and it was done for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA.

The 2010 NHMRC document omitting this vital knowledge about the known adverse health impacts of low-frequency noise is still being widely used by wind developers and government departments to assert that there are no known health problems with wind turbines. Sleep disturbance is by far the most common problem reported by residents living near wind developments, which they consistently document correlates with their exposure to operating wind turbines—the experiment that Professor Phillips was referring to. They sleep well when the turbines are off or when they are away from the turbines, or when the wind is not blowing towards them. They report repetitively disturbed sleep when the turbines are operating and the wind is blowing towards them. This effect is being reported up to 10 kilometres away from three-megawatt turbines at Waterloo in South Australia and 7½ kilometres away from two-megawatt wind turbines at Cullerin in New South Wales, in two recent community noise impact surveys. These were conducted by members of the community because there has been no research by academic institutions into this problem. The size of the turbines matters. The larger the turbine, the greater the effect of the low-frequency noise and the further the distance travelled.

The connections between chronic sleep disturbance and consequent serious adverse health effects are well-known to clinical medicine. In conclusion, we strongly support all the provisions of this bill and hope that the much-needed multidisciplinary research recommended by the Senate in June 2011, after the first Senate inquiry, is conducted as soon as possible.

Senator XENOPHON: Dr Laurie, I know you have been referred to as the 'high priestess' of anti-wind farm agitation by, I think, Professor Chapman. I just want to clear this up on the record. I do not say it as a pejorative; I am describing what Professor Chapman said. He referred to you as an 'unregistered doctor'. Can you just give us some context about that comment? Is that the case?

Dr Laurie : That is the case currently. I was trained at Flinders University. I graduated in 1994, after which I underwent postgraduate training into general practice—and specifically for rural general practice. I became a country GP and worked for a number of years, and suddenly in April 2002 I was diagnosed with very early ovarian cancer. I left work immediately and took quite a substantial period of time off work. For that period of time I was registered. I went on to have a family—twins—aged 40. Various other family circumstances intervened: I became a carer for my elderly, frail parents-in-law and my husband went and worked 1,200 kilometres away. When my children were 2½ my son had just been diagnosed with a serious allergic condition, and—

Senator XENOPHON: I do not think you need to say any more. The fact is that you have some serious health issues and some family commitments, and basically you have not been practising medicine because of family circumstances and health circumstances.

Dr Laurie : I was actually on my way back into preparing to re-register when I found out about some turbines that were planned for the hills near my home, and that stimulated my interest in this particular topic. I am still very keen to get back to my work when the research is done.

Senator XENOPHON: It is just that, when you are referred to as an 'unregistered doctor', some people might think that there is something suspect about your qualification. I just wanted that on the record to clear that up.

Dr Laurie : Thank you, Senator Xenophon. It has been used frequently to assert that I am in fact deregistered, which is incorrect. I am currently unregistered but eminently registrable to go back to clinical practice, which is what I intend to do.

Senator XENOPHON: At the Waubra Foundation, you do work for residents affected by noise in terms of coal seam gas and gas-fired generators.

Dr Laurie : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: In your advocacy for those residents, do you get resistance from the proponents of the coal seam gas and the gas-fired generators to release information about the source of noise or the extent of noise?

Dr Laurie : Work in that area has been much less in terms of volume. I respond to requests for information and help predominantly from the residents but sometimes from treating health professionals—country GPs—who are desperate to try to help these sick people. I have provided information to those people; we have not really got enough information from them to start publicising the problems. In particular, we have not got the acoustic information from those people. But we are encouraging them to employ acousticians to go and collect the full sound spectrum to clarify what we think is going on in terms of infrasound and low-frequency noise being present. I think that, once we have that, we will be able to be far more effective in helping advocate for them. The problems with regulation of noise pollution are an issue in number of industries, not just with wind turbines. There may be guidelines. But whether or not they are adequate is one issue; whether they are enforced properly is entirely another.

Senator XENOPHON: That is why the second part of the bill relates to the transparency of information. Is that an issue that you have struck in terms of residents making a complaint but not being able to access information to pursue the complaint?

Dr Laurie : Absolutely. They are not given it; or, if they are given it, it is very often in a form that they cannot use.

Senator XENOPHON: The Waubra Foundation sounds like a big organisation. How big is it, and who funds it? Do you volunteer your time for that, or do you get paid?

Dr Laurie : No, I do not get paid. I have worked voluntarily since I started working, which was about 2½ years ago. We are a small organisation. We have a board of directors which became involved in April last year. I was initially approached by the founder of the organisation, Mr Peter Mitchell, to join as its medical director. Subsequently, I became the CEO. I am the CEO of a very, very small outfit. We have a volunteer administrator who helps part-time, and there are six directors including me on the board—and that is it. We are funded entirely by donations from residents, predominantly rural residents, who are very concerned about what is going on and they want to see the research done.

Senator XENOPHON: You obviously run on a shoestring, but how big is your budget in general terms?

Dr Laurie : We currently have well under $100,000 in the bank. Operating expenses are absolutely minimal, which is why we have shared a post office box with 300 other organisations that use the address of an accounting company called Lowell.

Senator XENOPHON: Okay. Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Back, you have a couple of minutes.

Senator BACK: Dr Laurie, it has been put publicly that the Waubra Foundation represents only people in Waubra or those in the vicinity of the wind turbine operation there. Is that correct or—

Dr Laurie : No.

Senator BACK: are there also non-Waubra-based people amongst your numbers?

Dr Laurie : The organisation itself, as I explained to Senator Xenophon, is very small. However, the people that I was first contacted by and helped were in fact the people affected at the Waubra wind development, also people at Cape Bridgewater and a number of other locations. From the chairman, the founder, my understanding of the reason the organisation was named the Waubra Foundation is that initially the media in Victoria were calling the illnesses that people were reporting publicly at Waubra, prior to my involvement, 'the Waubra disease'. So I think the media started using the term 'the Waubra disease'. Initially, the organisation was actually registered as the Waubra Disease Foundation. That was changed.

Senator BACK: Just for clarity: were people affected by the wind turbines in that area contacting your organisation—

Dr Laurie : Yes.

Senator BACK: or did the foundation contact them in the first instance?

Dr Laurie : No. I never go out and contact people. I always wait to be contacted.

Senator BACK: Thank you. What is your understanding of when the effects of wind turbines in Australia were first recognised and documented?

Dr Laurie : Dr David Iser was the first general practitioner to raise his concerns. He certainly publicly raised them in 2004—it might have been earlier that he started talking about it. But my understanding is that it was in 2004, shortly after the start-up of the Toora wind development down in South Gippsland. Dr Iser was concerned about the health problems that his longstanding patients were reporting to him. He somehow found out that there was another rural GP, in Cornwall, who had reported similar problems there, and her name was Dr Amanda Harry. I have met with Dr Iser, and he explained that he got in touch with Dr Harry and actually used a survey that she had developed in conjunction with a physicist, who helped her understand more about the problems that were well known then about low-frequency noise. So that is how it started in Australia.

Senator BACK: Thank you.

CHAIR: Dr Laurie, we have submissions saying that there are over 200,000 wind turbines around the world. Do you agree with that figure?

Dr Laurie : I am not across the numbers but I know there are a lot in many parts of the world.

CHAIR: Yes. And there have been 17 international studies of the health effects on wind turbines; are you aware of those studies?

Dr Laurie : With respect, Senator Cameron, they are literature reviews. They are not what we call empirical studies. So they are not studies that have gone and collected data, such as Dr Nissenbaum, Dr Hanning and Dr Aramini's study or Dr Daniel Shepherd's study. There is a difference.

CHAIR: So, in Europe, Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and all over the world where wind turbines are operating, none of the health authorities in those countries are actually saying that there is a wind turbine syndrome, are they?

Dr Laurie : No, they are not.

CHAIR: We have got submissions here that say there are 150 different types of health issues associated with wind turbines. Are you aware of that?

Dr Laurie : I am aware of Professor Chapman's list of a certain number of conditions.

CHAIR: How many conditions do you say are associated with wind turbines?

Dr Laurie : Sleep disturbance is the number one. That is why I think this bill is so important. There are many other symptoms that people have reported. Some of them are symptoms that general practitioners would see a lot, not necessarily in conjunction with wind turbines.

CHAIR: Have you diagnosed any of these symptoms?

Dr Laurie : No; I do not diagnose conditions because I am currently unregistered and you just do not do that as an unregistered practitioner. What I have done is listened to the stories. I have then talked to the treating doctors, where I have had permission from the sick people to do that. We have shared information. I have been focused on trying to understand what it is about the symptoms that these people are experiencing that could be related to whatever the physical force is that might be causing it. Noise was something that we were very interested in early on, but there are other issues that have been raised.

The perception of vibration through the ground is something that some residents report. Where that is reported the deterioration of their symptoms is quite marked.

CHAIR: There are no studies or any evidence of this, are there?

Dr Laurie : No, the reason the Waubra Foundation was established was to advocate for the research to be done. Professor Warwick Anderson, who is the CEO of the NHMRC, in his evidence to the Senate inquiry into rural wind farms acknowledged very clearly that anecdotal evidence and this sort of observational evidence is the start, and that an absence of peer reviewed research does not mean that there is no problem.

CHAIR: What the NHMRC indicates is that authorities should take a precautionary approach.

Dr Laurie : Yes. I wish they would.

CHAIR: You are saying that the precautionary approach at the moment is not sufficient?

Dr Laurie : Yes, I am.

CHAIR: But there is no evidence that you can bring forward to say why you should take a more stringent cautionary approach.

Dr Laurie : The evidence is around in the form of the empty houses and the sick people. This Senate called for research to be done 16 months ago. It has not yet happened.

CHAIR: Have you ever argued that there have been deaths from this?

Dr Laurie : No, I have not.

CHAIR: So there are sick people and there are empty houses. Have you done an analysis of the sicknesses of each individual and taken that to the authorities?

Dr Laurie : I have certainly made the concerns that I have very well known to health authorities.

CHAIR: Not concerns. You said there were sick people and empty houses. I am just wondering if you have given the evidence of these sicknesses to the appropriate authority.

Senator XENOPHON: What authority would that be?


Dr Laurie : Yes, I have made submissions to the NHMRC. We have sent letters to the NHMRC. I have presented to an NHMRC workshop.

CHAIR: Could you provide us with the documentation of the number of houses that are empty and the sicknesses that you are aware of.

Dr Laurie : I can certainly do that.

CHAIR: It would be good if you could do that. I think we have run out of time.

Senator XENOPHON: Just on a procedural matter, Dr Laurie referred to a document. I am just wondering whether that is being tabled.

Dr Laurie : It is called, A Review of published research on low frequency noise and its effects.

CHAIR: I am not sure that you want it tabled. It is a public document.

Senator XENOPHON: It is only so that the committee can note it; that is all.

CHAIR: It is a public document.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Laurie.