Ontario government out of touch on wind turbine noise complaints, operator compliance

Despite thousands of citizen complaints about wind turbine noise, Ontario’s environment ministry says everything is OK [Shutterstock image]

Ontario has made no changes to provincial regulations for wind turbine noise levels or setbacks since the Wynne Liberal rule.

April 28, 2022

The Ontario government led by Premier Doug Ford seems to think that there are no problems at all with the province’s fleet of wind turbines, despite having thousands of citizen complaints on record, a report that links contaminated well water to wind turbine construction and operation, and a recent trend by rural municipalities to enact their own bylaws restricting wind power generators.

That’s what seems to be the case in a letter written to Wind Concerns Ontario in response to our letter asking for changes to noise limits and setback distances. Kathleen O’Neill, Director of the Environmental Assessment Branch for the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) said that changes had already been made to update the wind power program to improve protection for health and the environment.

In short, everything is OK as it is, thanks.

The truth is, the changes made to Ontario Regulation 359/09 were aimed at potential future development, and require that power developers demonstrate a demand for any electricity generated. The government also restored municipal planning powers in 2019, as part of revoking the egregious Green Energy and Green Economy Act.

But the fact remains: little is being done to enforce the current inadequate regulations pertaining to noise emissions. While the government promises it is always reviewing regulations and procedures, it doesn’t seem to want to take the next step of improving the regulations, or enforcing them.

The Ford government revoked the Green Energy Act and restored municipal planning powers, but it did not provide any leadership or guidance by altering its own regulations on setbacks and noise limits for grid-scale wind turbines. All the processes and regulations forged under the McGuinty-Wynne governments remain.

Ms O’Neill writes:

With respect to your concern related to complaints and ministry response, the ministry
continues to address all complaints received regarding a renewable energy facility as part of
our ongoing compliance activities. The Compliance Protocol for Wind Turbine Noise
(Compliance Protocol) provides specific guidance to both ministry staff and wind facility
operators on how to measure noise levels from wind turbines to confirm noise emissions
from a wind turbine are in compliance with the applicable ministry limits

The ministry conducts inspections and responds to complaints to ensure that the siting,
development and operation of wind facilities meet regulatory and approval requirements.
Ministry staff follow the complaint process outlined in the Compliance Protocol. At each step
of the process some complaints may be addressed or screened out, as not all complaints
warrant a detailed noise measurement. The ministry will continue to assess compliance at
all facilities in accordance with the Compliance Protocol and determine if additional
compliance actions are required


Noise complaints largely unheeded

With respect to Ms O’Neill, this sounds fine on paper but the reality is different. Not only does the Ministry have thousands of complaints on record, but it does not routinely respond to complaints. From our report on the noise complaints in 2018*:

In the documents provided for 2018, there were only seven Incident Reports out of 595 that noted a field response by ministry staff. That represents 1.1 percent. It may be there were responses by ministry staff and indeed several files refer to visits by Provincial Officers (e.g., the complaints about the Amaranth transformer station), but these actions, if they occurred, are not consistently reported.  This situation is possibly traceable to earlier mandates that there is no budget for them, especially on weekends and in off-hours.

In 2018, it was a common practice within the MECP to defer any field action if a noise audit is taking place, or planned, for wind power projects where there have been complaints. This was seen multiple times in the documents provided, particularly for complaints made about K2 Wind and the single Unifor wind turbine. This meant people complaining were essentially told, your complaint is being filed but no action will be taken for months while the company measures noise. The wait was lengthened if the test results proved inconclusive and further testing was required.  

This response conflicts with the Compliance Protocol for Wind Turbine Noise.  The protocol confirms that the project must operate within the REA requirements during the audit process: Throughout the review processes, the Director and staff of the Ministry’s district office where the facility is located will work together to ensure that wind facilities operate in accordance with the Ministry’s requirements. [Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, Compliance protocol for wind turbine noise, E5, April 2017.]

Also from our report on the 2018 records obtained via Freedom of Information:

In the main, the records indicate that the staff simply accepted the complaint, created an Incident Report (often initiated by the Spills Action Centre staff), perhaps linked it to a Master Incident Report, then filed it. On some occasions, staff noted that Action was “Recommended” or “To Be Assigned” but these were in the minority.

In a few cases, the wind power operators were delinquent in copying complaints made directly to them with the ministry, as is required in their Renewable Energy Approvals or Certificate of Approvals. The Provincial Officer then reminded the operator of that requirement; no further action took place.

The whole complaint process is in tatters, as we learned. Does it matter?

Yes.

Organizations operating in a corporate environment typically use customer complaints as an important tool to measure service delivery and improve corporate practices. Similarly, government agencies charged with protection of citizens, particularly in the area of public health, regard complaints or reports of adverse effects as a means of tracking the effectiveness of programs and as a way to monitor protection. In a recent peer-reviewed paper based on earlier documents released to Wind Concerns Ontario is this statement: “[C]omplaints may be seen as part of an effective public health surveillance system. According to the Centers for Disease Control ‘The purpose of evaluating public health surveillance systems is to ensure that problems of public health importance are being monitored efficiently and effectively’.” [1]

Not in Ontario. Despite the value of the information that they contain, there seems to be no organized program for monitoring reports of noise and adverse effects to the Spills Action Centre or District offices of the environment ministry; reports may be received, and Incidents Report numbers issued, which signals the fact they may be entered into the “internal system” but what happens to them after that is not known.

No real process

The available evidence does not indicate that citizen complaints about wind turbine project operations or even reports of health effects carry much weight with the government. Across the ministry, there is significant inconsistency in responses to the complaints about noise and other adverse effects connected to the operation of wind power facility, from the type of form used to how well they are filled out, and what is done with them.

For example, in the 2018 documents, the Owen Sound District Office provided Incident Report numbers for each individual complaint, when a family sent an email listing multiple events of excessive noise and health effects. The Windsor Office, however, for a family doing the same thing (on the advice of their lawyer), created “Information Reports” and gave a single tracking number for an entire month’s worth of events. The reporting is dramatically inconsistent, and not representative of what is going on.

Certain fields in the forms were not routinely filled out, as for example the “status” section or the field for whether there was any health or environmental consequence noted in the complaint.

The manager of one District Office asked asked staff to be more careful in completing the Incident Report forms. The impetus seems to have been not a desire to get things right but rather, to be careful in the face of media attention (probably due to Wind Concerns Ontario’s publication of annual reports).

it’s a disaster as consistency of the clients, sites etc. is all over the place. … I know it seems like a lot and… [you are] …  likely cursing me right now!! Unfortunately, these wind FOI’s are getting a lot of attention since the release of the FOI materials it’s ramping up. [Email from Stephen Burt to MOECC Hamilton office staff, sent June 2, 2017. Obtained via separate Freedom of Information request by Ontario resident in Niagara Region Wind Farm.]

There is no indication that the noise complaints go beyond the District Office level. At a minimum, one would expect regular summary reports on complaints and resolution would be submitted for review by senior management of the ministry, with regular updates to the Minister.

Not happening, apparently.

Requirements of approvals not met

As to Ms O’Neill’s assertion that the Ministry ensures that the operators of wind power facilities “meet regulatory and approval requirements,” again, this is simply not reality.

A review of project websites by Wind Concerns Ontario revealed that as of February 2022, only 43 percent of operating projects have acoustics audits completed and accepted in order to demonstrate compliance with regulations. As for the others, 7 percent are not compliant, 17 percent filed audits that are “incomplete” and 30 percent have audit reports that are “in review.” (More on this later.) Because the acoustics audits are required to verify compliance with the project approvals, this means a significant number of Ontario projects are operating outside the terms of their approvals.

Not acceptable.

Another review of wind power project documents indicates that as many as 90,000 people in Ontario are living within 1,500 metres of a wind turbine or turbines. According to the Incident reports in 2018 (from what we got, anyway), 39 percent of those had mentions of physical symptoms of adverse health effects. That is a lot of people who could be suffering from sleep disturbance and resulting long-term health effects.

Not acceptable.

Ontario’s rural municipalities are concerned; a report released in December by the Multi-Municipal Wind Turbine Working Group documented catastrophic turbine failures in Ontario and asked the government to act on setbacks for safety. Noise complaints are also a concern for municipalities, several of whom have already passed, or are discussing, greater setbacks than Ontario’s current (and inadequate) 550 metres.

Clearly, everything is not OK, despite the assurances from the environment ministry.

With an election coming, the government can be assured that this issue will come up.

WIND CONCERNS ONTARIO

Wind Concerns Ontario is a non-profit coalition of community groups, individuals and families concerned with the negative impacts of grid-scale wind power development on the environment, the economy, and health.

contact@windconcernsontario.ca

*The records for 2018 were incomplete, with several offices not responding to the request at all. As a result, Wind Concerns Ontario has re-filed the request in the hope of obtaining a complete fulfilment. Requests for Incident Reports for 2019, 2020 and 2021 are outstanding as is a special request for noise complaints filed for the Nation Rise power project.

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1 Comments

  • Sommer
    Posted May 4, 2022 6:24 pm 0Likes

    “The whole complaint process is in tatters, as we learned.”
    Thank you for acknowledging this!

    Is it any wonder that residents being harmed have succumbed to ‘learned helplessness’ and have given up even trying to report the harm they’re experiencing? It takes very high levels of persistence to endure the sheer frustration of communicating with agents of the government and agencies, mandated to protect residents, who consistently fail to do so effectively.

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