First came the animosity.
Cary and Karen Shineldecker faced name-calling and middle fingers for opposing an industrial wind development in their rural Mason County, Michigan, community. Longtime friends who supported the project stopped speaking to them. Someone poisoned their dogs. They felt unwelcome at their church.
First came the animosity. Cary and Karen Shineldecker faced name-calling and middle fingers for opposing an industrial wind development in their rural Mason County, Michigan, community. Longtime friends who supported the project stopped speaking to them. Someone poisoned their dogs. They felt unwelcome at their church. Then came the health problems. The couple suffered anxiety, headaches, ear pressure, tinnitus, heart palpitations and sleep disturbances after Lake Winds Energy began operating its 476-foot-tall turbines around their home. Then came the financial woes. The Shineldeckers spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting the wind farm and sold their property at a loss to escape it. They now live four miles away in a house with a mortgage and memories that haunt them. “The smart thing to do would have been for us to not fight and just leave,” Cary said, “but I guess it’s not in my nature to do that.” The Shineldeckers joined the ranks of hundreds of residents from Oregon to Maine who feel burned by the rapidly growing wind industry. A six-month GateHouse Media investigation found that wind developers representing some of the world’s biggest energy companies divide communities and disrupt the lives of residents forced to live in the shadow of their industrial wind farms. Reporters interviewed more than 70 families living near three dozen current or proposed wind farms. They also spoke to 10 state and local lawmakers, read hundreds of pages of public-service-commission records about wind projects, reviewed court filings in seven wind-related lawsuits and inspected lease agreements from at least eight wind farms. GateHouse Media also identified through public documents and media reports an additional 400 families living near industrial wind turbines that have publicly complained about shadow flicker, noise, health problems and/or misleading statements by wind companies in an effort to solicit land agreements. The investigation found that companies convince landowners to sign away their property rights for generations based on the promise of potential profits and the minimization of potential problems associated with wind turbines. Those problems include shadow flicker, loud noises and low-frequency vibrations that have driven dozens of families from their homes. Many of them claim to have suffered serious health issues from the turbines before departing. Some say they’ll never be the same. The wind industry has known about these issues for years – many of its contracts contain clauses acknowledging these effects – but it denies turbines affect human health, even as complaints mount nationwide. Landowners often overlook potential problems until it’s too late. Many who sign contracts can’t terminate the agreements, even if they later beg for relief from what they deem intolerable living conditions. Some covenants bar people from suing or even publicly criticizing the projects. Those who don’t sign agreements can face the same impact of living near wind turbines erected on neighboring properties. But they receive no compensation for the shadow flicker, noises and vibrations. Many of these residents have become vocal opponents of the industry. Dozens of them, including the Shineldeckers, have sued the wind companies for destroying their quality of life. Wind developers have settled more than a half-dozen such cases nationwide, even while admitting no wrongdoing. Among the companies to settle is Michigan-based Consumers Energy, which owns Lake Winds Energy Park. The Shineldeckers were among several neighbors who sued the company. Consumers Energy spokesman Terry DeDoes declined repeated requests to answer questions for this story. The company previously denied the Shineldeckers’ claims in court filings. Proposed wind projects also have fractured rural communities across America, pitting neighbor against neighbor in fights over property rights and money. Many worry about the impact these turbines will have on their homes – some families interviewed have abandoned their houses after wind farms started operating; others have stayed but suffer from shadow flicker, noises and vibrations. Elected officials tasked with voting on these developments have, in many cases, signed their own contracts with the wind companies, raising concerns about conflicts of interest. Among the investigation’s findings: • Despite a growing chorus of complaints, the wind industry has expanded largely unopposed. Ten years ago, less than 300 industrial wind farms dotted the U.S. landscape. Today, more than 1,000 exist. Much of the growth has been funded by American taxpayers. Billions of dollars in state and federal incentives have made wind farms so profitable that companies are racing to develop them before the handouts disappear. • Industrial wind turbines generate countless complaints nationwide about sleep disturbances, migraines, nausea, ear pressure, blurred vision, tinnitus and heart palpitations. Rampant reports about such effects from the Shirley Wind Farm in Brown County, Wisconsin, prompted the local Board of Health to declare the turbines a human health hazard. • Wind industry officials have denounced people who complain about these symptoms, calling them misinformed or “anti-wind.” Some wind companies offer money or other concessions to frequent complainers, often in exchange for silence and a waiver for turbine-related claims. “I call it a shut-up clause,” said Jim Miller of South Dakota, who refused to sign such an agreement with Florida-based NextEra. • Wind developers have used what some
landowners describe as misleading tactics to get their contracts signed. Attorneys asked to review several such contracts called them one-sided, giving wind companies sweeping control over people’s property with few rights for the landowner. • Wind farms have divided communities across America. Contracted landowners eyeing profits spar with neighbors opposing turbines near their backyards. Lifelong friendships can end. Families sometimes fray. Hopkinton, New York, resident Janice Pease said she stopped talking to relatives who support a proposed wind farm in their town. Pease adamantly opposes it. Wind industry denies claims GateHouse Media reached out to seven wind energy companies, including some of the nation’s largest, and two nonprofit groups that support the wind industry. Those representatives denied almost all of the investigation’s findings. Every wind industry official interviewed said that relatively few people complain about wind turbines compared to the thousands of Americans living peacefully among the structures. “We have 1,300 turbines in operation across the United States,” said Duke Energy spokeswoman Tammie McGee. Except for one wind farm in Wisconsin, “we don’t see these types of complaints at our other turbines.” Many of the people who do complain, several representatives said, are well-known among industry insiders and comprise a small but vocal group of anti-wind activists. “There are a good number of people who seem to pop up in different states and fight any wind project they can find,” said Dave Anderson of the Energy and Policy Institute, a nonprofit group that supports the renewable energy industry. Some wind representatives questioned why GateHouse Media would write this story, citing study after study finding no evidence that wind turbines cause health problems. When asked about the studies that do establish a link, those same wind officials disputed the validity of those papers and the credentials of the researchers. People might be annoyed by wind turbines, several wind representatives said. But they’re not getting sick from them. “We do recognize that they can be bothersome to people, and our companies try to do things to minimize that both pre- and post-construction,” said Mike Speerschneider, senior director of permitting policy and environmental affairs for the American Wind Energy Association in Washington DC. “But is it making people sick? Is it having physiological and medical impacts? No.” Rather than divide communities, they said their projects improve the lives of all residents. Some towns hold festivals commemorating their wind farms. Enyo Renewable Energy Principal Christine Mikell mentioned the Wind Fest in Spanish Fork, Utah, which hosts a nine-turbine wind farm. “We have hundreds of landowners who are pleased to have us come to their communities,” said Bryan Garner of Florida-based NextEnergy Resources, the biggest wind energy producer in America with more than 100 wind farms. Wind representatives all declined to discuss specific contracts, saying they are private agreements between the companies and the landowners. In general, though, most officials called them relatively standard lease agreements. Garner said NextEra even pays landowners the cost of hiring private attorneys to review the contracts. Wind company representatives also said they follow all local, state and federal rules regarding wind farm development. They said they conduct extensive sound and environmental testing. And they said they reach out early and often to community members. “We make an effort to be available to answer questions, to address concerns in a variety of forms, over the years-long process of development,” said Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, one of the world’s largest wind farm operators. To be sure, wind farms harness a clean and renewable energy source that lessens the country’s dependence on fossil fuel and foreign oil. Improved technology has made today’s turbines more efficient and thus cheaper to run, lowering energy costs for everyone. Communities can also benefit financially from wind farms. The construction of these multi-million-dollar projects employs hundreds of temporary workers and adds new, taxable revenue to local and state coffers. Some communities get fixed, annual payments instead of tax revenues. Barber County, Kansas, for example, earns $500,000 a year in such payments from the Flat Ridge Wind Project. It also gets $5,000 for every megawatt of electricity the project produces. Landowners, too, can make a lot of money, receiving as much as $14,000 annually for every turbine they host. Perry Burchill of Luverne, North Dakota, was able to retire from farming two years after the Ashtabula Wind Energy Center erected 13 turbines on his land. Burchill said the turbines don’t bother him. His neighbor, Mark Askerooth, also hosts a turbine but says he notices the noise, and it bothers him. “The wind farm is wonderful as far as the local economy goes,” Askerooth said. “But if I’d have known at the time what I know now, I don’t think I would have done it. They are not telling the truth when they say the sound doesn’t affect you. They intimated when we signed the agreement that we wouldn’t notice the noise. But we definitely notice it.”