The way Georgia Mountain Community Wind co-owner David Blittersdorf tells it, the people who complain about wind turbine noise are just short of crazy.
“They’re magnifying the effect in their own heads,” Blittersdorf said, under the shadow of Turbine 3 at the company’s open house last month. “I don’t want to call them crazy, but I’m very close.”
Georgia Wind neighbor Reggie Johnson, a former psychiatric nurse and Vermont State Hospital supervisor who, by every outward appearance, seems perfectly sane, tends to disagree.
Ever since Johnson returned home from Florida in May, he and domestic partner, Shirley Phillips, can’t sleep. She’s taken to the living room recliner to find relief, and he stays upstairs, fans blasting to drown out the whirs, squeaks and vibrations from the four turbines, sited just over a half mile from his Georgia Mountain Road home.
The couple that starts every morning with coffee and a newspaper hasn’t sat on their porch but a few times this summer and have barely used the pool that Reggie rigged up with lights, surround sound and a waterfall.
They’re grouchy, impatient and frustrated.
“It’s pure hell,” Johnson, 71, of Georgia said.
Johnson built his home of 45 years by hand. He has a greenhouse, two workshops and plentiful gardens he says he can’t enjoy. The turbines’ thud thud thud bothers them up to five times a week.
“You’re trapped in the house,” he said, adding, “We have to change our whole lifestyle because [of] that sound up there.”
Both Johnson and Blittersdorf call this experience “wind turbine syndrome,” which blames the towers for insomnia, irritability and a host of health issues. But only one thinks it’s real.
To Blittersdorf, who co-owns Georgia Wind with local developer Jim Harrison, the syndrome is caused by perception, not wind power.
“It’s like anything: If someone doesn’t like something, it blows up in their head that it’s a much bigger issue than it really is.
“If they hate wind, they make more of it than is reality.”
Besides, Blittersdorf argued, the project is in compliance: Since it was commissioned in December, Georgia Wind’s quarterly noise monitoring reports show the 10-megawatt project hasn’t exceeded the 45-decibel sound limit, about the level of a stream, the National Institutes of Health says.
Project Manager Martha Staskus said out of the 100 residences within a mile of the project, only two regularly complain about noise – Johnson and neighbors Scott and Melodie McLane, who opposed Georgia Wind before it was built.
The Vermont Department of Public Service, a consumer advocate in utility issues, has received 31 calls from five individuals – two each in Georgia and Fairfax and one in Milton – since October 2012, mostly about noise. This doesn’t count those placed directly to Georgia Wind.
Vermont’s other, bigger wind farms have also garnered grumbles, and just last week, the Public Service Board ruled Kingdom Community Wind in Lowell violated its certificate of public good by surpassing 45 decibels for one monitoring period, measured as an average.
The McLanes and neighbors Ken and George Wimble invested “several thousand dollars” in their own noise monitoring equipment, which has mostly shown compliant levels but sometimes with only three turbines spinning. Scott McLane has also recorded readings in the mid-50s, when the contracted engineers weren’t measuring.
Melodie McLane said when she opens the door, it sounds like an airport runway. She took issue with Blittersdorf’s “crazy” characterization.
“For people like him, it’s all studies and facts and numbers,” she said. “Just go and experience it. Get out of your chair and go up on the mountain.”
Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, an anti-wind nonprofit, is helping spread this message via a complaint form that tracks wind turbines’ alleged effects. So far, participants show the same experiences as the Johnsons and McLanes in Georgia and some worse: Smith says she can account for Vermonters shipping out.
“People don’t become desperate to leave their homes for no reason or because it’s in their heads,” she said.
“We have inflicted this technology on people … now they’re getting sick, and now people like David Blittersdorf are ridiculing them.
“At what level when you have survey after survey finding the same symptoms do you start saying this is science?” Smith continued. “This is what leads to good science are these anecdotes.”
Overall, though, studies on turbine noise are inconclusive. One by Dr. Nina Pierpont, a medical doctor and biologist in upstate New York, coined the term “wind turbine syndrome” and its symptoms and is widely discredited by wind advocates for its lack of peer reviews.
Another concludes low-frequency “infrasound” can impact delicate ear systems but shies away from establishing a causal link with wind. Another still suggests a “nocebo” effect, when the fear of negative impacts actually causes them, much what Blittersdorf suggested.
But Smith says she knows former wind proponents who now suffer from its effects – in other words, they weren’t predisposed to the syndrome.
Ethan Rogati of Milton fits into that category. He was skeptical of opponents’ claims, “a compilation of worst-case scenarios off the Internet,” he said. Rogati attended the open house and heard a slight whooshing but otherwise nothing major.
But then he got in touch with Smith and the McLanes, who convinced him to take an early morning trip up Georgia Mountain to hear for himself. Today?
“I’m a convert of, ‘Yeah, something’s pretty wrong,’” Rogati said.
The noise Rogati heard wasn’t loud but was constant and metallic, almost like grinding car brakes. It hung in his head an hour after coming off the hill, he said.
“I became a lot more sympathetic, because I heard what they were talking about,” Rogati said.
Of course, wind turbine operators don’t deny their products make noise – that’s why they monitor it, Staskus said. She said Georgia Wind has accommodated abutters’ requests to place sound equipment on their properties and investigates every complaint by recording weather conditions, including temperature and wind direction, at the time of each call.
Staskus couldn’t confirm or deny the neighbors’ complaints, saying she’s going with science.
“We’re operating within compliance of the CPG, and the CPG is issued with conditions that the board … decided was a safe level that would not impact health effects,” she said.
But some wonder if the state-accepted limits are appropriate.
DPS Director Christopher Recchia is concerned about the complaints but wouldn’t take a stance on the 45-decibel average, saying over time, DPS will work with the Public Service Board to reach “a single standard that is measurable and makes sense.”
Recchia says in addition to reviewing sound data, his department will work with turbine operators to address noise, even if it falls within approved levels.
“We’re learning more about what might be causing the noise and under what conditions and how to possibly mitigate it,” he said.
Recchia disputed any notion that the state’s aggressive renewable energy policy will cause DPS and the board to overlook citizens’ concerns. If anything, “It’s reasonable to think that over time, we’ll integrate all this information into any future decisions we have,” he said.
And at this point, that’s all Georgia Wind’s neighbors can hope for.
“Maybe it’s too late for us,” Melodie McLane said, but “maybe the next project they’ll be more careful about siting it so it’s not so close to neighbors.”
Reggie Johnson agreed. Outside, three turbines spun lazily on the humid, summer day. Johnson surveyed his crops – corn, berries, even peaches – and the veritable paradise he built for himself and his partner, with slight sadness.
The countdown to Florida begins.