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Eastern El Paso County residents commission studies to fight wind farm

June 2, 2017 Updated: June 3, 2017 at 7:08 am
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A small group of residents in eastern El Paso County has spent at least $65,000 on research that they say should be enough to shut down an area wind farm. Gazette file photo.

Three families in eastern El Paso County have spent at least $65,000 on research that they say should be enough to shut down an area wind farm.

They blame the 145 turbines at NextEra Energy's Golden West wind farm for their health problems and the deaths of more than a dozen of their animals since the turbines began rotating in 2015. The human health impacts range in severity, from nausea and headaches to cardiovascular problems, said Sandra Wolfe, who lives near the wind farm.

"We feel like we are victims of NextEra and victims of the turbines," she said.

The complaints have raised questions about the county commissioners' role in addressing the grievances. Commissioners approved the wind farm's construction in 2013 and OK'd changes to the plan in early 2015 after NextEra proposed erecting a 29-mile above-ground power line as part of the project.

On Thursday, commissioners held an executive session to seek legal guidance on the matter. The county attorney planned to discuss the applicability of state and local laws and the studies provided by the residents.

The board will hold another public hearing, likely in late July, for residents to voice concerns, said county spokesman Dave Rose.

The families have paid a Boulder-based acoustic specialist about $15,000 for two studies on the noise and low-frequency sound waves emitted by the windmills, known as infrasound, said Gavin Wince, whose family left their home in September to escape the turbines. The group spent the rest of the money on health studies, which cite residents' medical records and DNA test results to prove that the windmills are taking a toll on their physical well-being, Wince said.

But the wind farm opponents have not yet released the medical studies. They said NextEra could retaliate by targeting the practitioners who participated, including specialists in cardiology and neurology and an ear, nose and throat doctor, he said.

The wind farm long has been a source of controversy. In 2015, a group of residents sued the county for signing off on the project's construction, but the lawsuit was dismissed when both parties reached an agreement. Residents' concerns include health risks and lowered property values, but area parcels have appreciated in value since the turbines were built, say figures from the county assessor's office.

Commissioner Mark Waller, whose district includes the wind farm, said worried neighbors have yet to provide evidence that warrants county action.

"All of the information that we've been given is anecdotal. We haven't been given any sort of medical documentation that shows a causal connection between the windmill operations and injury," Waller said. "It's incredibly frustrating. If this issue is as widespread and significant as they say it is, we should have evidence."

While dozens of residents live within 1 or 2 miles of the wind farm, complaints are relatively few, NextEra reports. Of about 15 complaints filed since construction was completed on the project, four or five remain unresolved, company officials said.

"We are committed to being a good neighbor and responding to any complaints or concerns that come to us in a timely fashion and in keeping with the process laid out by the El Paso County commission," NextEra spokesman Bryan Garner said by email, referencing the complaint resolution procedure in the company's agreement with the county.

Objecting neighbors confronted commissioners at a March 23 meeting, when county and NextEra staff reported on the windmills' infrasound levels and the "shadow flicker" that occurs when the sun shines through the turbines' rotating blades.

Experts pointed to a collection of studies that found infrasound isn't hazardous to human health, such as a 2014 Canadian study of more than 1,200 people living within a 6-mile range of wind turbines. The study, which included self-reported questionnaires, sleep evaluations, blood pressure measurements and DNA tests, found no evidence of health effects related to the turbines, says the study, which cites research and reviews from across the world.

Reports commissioned by the company also were presented, showing the turbine-produced infrasound and shadow flicker comply with local regulations and zoning rules.

But residents cite other studies and online articles linking windmills with adverse health effects.

A 2013 article published in the Canadian Family Physician says people who live or work near industrial wind turbines may experience stress, sleep disturbance, headache, anxiety, depression, cognitive dysfunction and decreased quality of life. Feelings of anger, grief or "a sense of injustice" also may be side effects, says the article, which also cites worldwide research and reviews. Noise, infrasound, ground current and shadow flicker might cause the symptoms, the article suggests.

Acoustics investigator Robert Rand prepared the noise studies for residents and delivered copies to the commissioners. Those studies say the wind farm doesn't comply with state and county noise limits.

One of Rand's reports notes a dozen "errors and omissions" in one of the studies NextEra financed, including a failure to assess how noise levels adversely affect neighbors.

The second report Rand prepared measured acoustic pressures at the three families' homes, finding that the "blade pass frequencies" observed at the residences were "within the range associated to motion sickness." Rand's assessment cites the county's noise ordinance, which prohibits any sound that is "harmful or injurious to the health, safety or welfare of any individual." Under the county's agreement with the company, the wind farm must meet the standards established by the ordinance.

But Waller said Rand's reports and other studies the residents presented aren't "actionable" for the county. "At best, they've got a civil cause for action against NextEra," he said.

The residents haven't ruled out a lawsuit, though they've struggled to find legal representation, Wince said. He said attorneys from several big-name law firms in Colorado have turned them down, telling him their firms couldn't take on a corporation with such deep pockets.

"We have everything we need," Wince said. "The problem is that NextEra would be willing to put up an incredible fight."

NextEra's website says the Florida-based company accrued roughly $16.2 billion in consolidated revenues in 2016 and had 14,700 employees in 30 states and Canada at the end of the year.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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