Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said the K2 Wind Farm is owned by Pattern Energy. It is a joint venture between Pattern Energy, Axium Infrastructure Inc. and Capital Power Corporation.
Carla Stachura and her husband Mike thought they’d found the perfect spot to retire.
A house in rural Ontario where they run a wildlife sanctuary with lamas and a variety of birds, and planned to spend their retirement years enjoying the peace and quiet of country life.
But that dream was shattered when wind turbines began popping up near their Goderich, Ont. home. Since then, their dream has become a nightmare. The couple says they’ve been unable to sleep and exposed to prolonged periods of annoying noise. Adding to their frustration, they say the provincial government won’t lift a finger to help them, other than order more tests.
“We’ve been having issues since they turned the turbines on,” said Carla.
“It was alarming. There was a high pitched tonal wooing. It was like, ‘wooo wooo wooo.’ And that was in addition to crashing and the thumping and the whomping.”
The couple purchased the property in 2003. They say it was paradise until the K2 Wind Farm, operated by Pattern Energy, started operations in the spring of 2015.
“I immediately called K2,” Carla said.
Over the past two years, officials from the ministry have measured violations of the province’s noise limits at the couple’s home on two occasions, first in August 2015 and again in March 2017. Despite these violations, the couple says the government has done nothing other than order more tests.
Ministry of Environment does not respond to majority of wind turbine complaints
The Stachura’s complaints of government inaction are not unique. In fact, Global News has learned that Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change does not respond to the majority of complaints made by residents concerned about wind turbines.
Documents released through Ontario’s Freedom of Information Act and obtained by Global News reveal officials from the Ministry of Environment chose not to investigate or deferred responding to – meaning they did not make immediate plans to investigate – roughly 68 per cent of all noise and health complaints lodged against wind turbine operators in the province between 2006 and 2014. This represents nearly 2,200 individual complaints.
The documents also show limited resources sometimes prevented the ministry from responding to complaints.
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Originally obtained by Wind Concerns Ontario, the documents include a list of 3,180 complaints. They also include a 458-page collection of “master incident reports,” which the ministry has verified as authentic, detailing the ministry’s response – or lack thereof – in cases where residents complained multiple times.
The documents show that in 54 per cent of all cases – more than 1,700 individual complaints – the ministry did not investigate residents’ concerns. In another 450 cases, roughly 14 per cent of total incidents, the ministry deferred responding to complaints.
In most cases, the documents do not reveal why the ministry chose not to respond. Instead, they tend to focus on whether the wind farm was compliant with ministry standards or past efforts to resolve residents’ concerns.
“The lack of response from the ministry shows just how unprepared they were for the potential effects of putting these giant machines so close to people and their communities,” said Jane Wilson, president of Wind Concerns Ontario.
“They just ignored these people and didn’t seem to take the problems seriously – that’s very disturbing.”
But Glenn Murray, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment and Climate change, says this couldn’t be further from the truth. He says the government works quickly and thoroughly to address concerns. He also says he has great empathy for anyone suffering due to wind turbine noise.
“The law works,” said Murray, answering a question in Ontario’s Legislature in April about wind turbine complaints. “When people call, I’m very proud of the officials, they respond quickly and they enforce the law.”
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But Wilson says this isn’t true. She says the documents prove ministry officials do not respond when people complain. She says the government isn’t concerned with resolving longstanding complaints and has turned its back on the people of Ontario.
Murray, meanwhile, says the number of complaints the ministry receives about wind turbines is small relative to other issues, and that complaints are isolated to only a handful of wind farms.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Murray said when asked if the government wants wind turbine complaints to just go away.
“We have a very limited number of complaints from turbines. The vast majority of wind turbine sites in Ontario generate very little complaints or complaints that are actually backed up by tests.”
Murray also says changes to ministry guidelines announced in April will give environmental officers greater authority to ensure compliance and resolve residents’ concerns. He says he’s also committed to further strengthening regulations and helping residents with legitimate complaints.
Municipality waits for years
Luke Charbonneau, deputy mayor of Saugeen Shores, Ont., says he’s been waiting for the ministry to respond to noise complaints ever since a single wind turbine began operating in his community five years ago.
Unlike most turbines in the province, the Unifor-owned turbine – formerly owned by CAW – is in the middle of a populated area, Port Elgin, Ont.
According to Charbonneau, the ministry promised a thorough noise review would be conducted within two years of the turbine starting up. This is supported by a 2012 letter from the director of the ministry’s environmental approvals branch, Doris Dumais.
“The ministry has required the proponent to undertake auditing once the turbine is in operation to ensure noise limits are not exceeded,” wrote Dumais. “The proponent has committed to scheduled monitoring which will be performed over the first two years of operation.”
But Charbonneau says that never happened, despite constant back and forth between the town council and the ministry.
“We don’t have a lot of confidence in the ministry,” Charbonneau said. “They were going to require them to do an acoustic audit. So that’s five years ago and we still haven’t seen it.”
Fed up with delays, Charbonneau and the town of Saugeen Shores passed a resolution in March to hire an independent auditor to conduct the testing themselves.
He says Unifor is now working with the community and the testing is finally underway. But this hasn’t come without a fight, he says.
“Where is the regulator who we’re relying on to ensure our safety?” said Charbonneau. “The only logical answer I can draw after five years of experience is that they’re not there. And when you have a regulator that’s not there, do you even have a regulation at that point?”
Charbonneau says the testing that’s currently underway is still voluntary, and that Unifor – not the government – has taken the lead in ensuring the tests are completed.
For Charbonneau, an elected official, this is a problem.
The ministry, meanwhile, said it confirmed with Unifor its expectation that noise monitoring would be carried out once the turbine became operational.
Independent experts hired by the union tried to conduct this testing in the fall of 2013 and again in the spring of 2014, but were unable to complete it.
“The ministry has reached out to Unifor to confirm the status of the acoustic audit,” said Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.
It expects a “full acoustic audit to be completed and submitted to the ministry for review by June 30, 2017,” he added.
The documents provided to Global News show the Unifor turbine received roughly 240 complaints between March 2013 and October 2014. The ministry responded with “planned” or “priority” responses in 14 of 236 complaints, roughly six per cent. The ministry deferred responding to complaints 136 times, 57 per cent of cases.
Incomplete reports, lack of resources hinder response
The complaint files also show that as late as November 2015, a lack of monitoring resources and incomplete noise reports prevented environmental officers from the ministry’s Guelph district office from responding to complaints.
The complaint file notes that nighttime monitoring resources were no longer available after February 2015. This is important because many complaints occur during evening and nighttime hours, when residents are trying to sleep and background noise is minimal.
The report goes on to state that since no monitoring resources were available to “confirm or deny” the resident’s complaints, and since the ministry had not rejected the company’s incomplete noise reports, officials were left with “no further option” but to close the complaint file.
When asked about the lack of resources, Murray said no one from the ministry has ever brought such issues to his attention.
“If there was a resource issue there with funding than I would know about it,” Murray said. “No one in the ministry has ever raised that there was a shortage of resources to run these programs.”
Despite violations, residents continue to wait
Back in Goderich, the Stachura’s are finally seeing some action from the Minister. But it came only after their concerns were raised by Conservative MPP Lisa Thompson in Ontario’s Legislature in April.
Her questions prompted Murray to meet with the Stachura’s to discuss their concerns.
“The issues that I am aware of are very real problems. I have huge empathy for the people who are living with them. It’s very, very, very frustrating.” Murray said. “I’ve ordered the ministry to accelerate, speed up the testing and to share all of the tests with the residents.”
Murray says if the test results continue to show problems, there is no doubt the ministry will order the company to take action to resolve the complaints.
According to the families in the area, the company has agreed to begin testing. However, the families say this provides little comfort given the long history of the problems they‘ve faced.
“We want to be able to resume our lives,” said Carla. “This is an agricultural area. Never did we think that this would be turned into an industrial site.”