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Reassurances fail to convince some neighbors El Paso County wind farm is safe

March 23, 2017 Updated: March 24, 2017 at 6:21 am
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A wind turbines produces power with Pikes Peak in the background as the sun rises Thursday, April 14, 2016, south of Calhan, Colo. About 145 turbines produce power near the eastern El Paso County town. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Residents living by a wind farm near Calhan say the turbines are affecting their health and harming animals, despite reassurances from experts at this week's El Paso County commissioners' meeting.

Jeff Wolfe, who lives close to NextEra Energy's Golden West wind farm, said he's experienced nausea, dizziness and migraines since it began operating in fall 2015. He attributes the symptoms to the low-frequency sound waves, known as infrasound, emitted by the 145 windmills.

"This is poisoning people. It's poisoning animals," said Wolfe, who has lived at his home between Yoder and Calhan for 20 years. He also blames the turbines for the cardiovascular problems his wife has begun to experience and the death of seven of their animals, including five dogs.

The sun begins to rise behind a row of wind turbines Thursday, April 14, 2016, south of Calhan, Colo. About 145 turbines cover eastern El Paso County. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

At the meeting, intended to provide commissioners and residents with an update on the wind farm, county staff and NextEra officials presented reports on the sound levels of the windmills and the flickering effect, known as "shadow flicker," that occurs when the sun shines through the turbines' rotating blades. A half-dozen residents also had the chance to air their grievances about the wind farm, approved by commissioners in 2013, which has long been a source of controversy.

Experts told commissioners that study after study has shown the infrasound generated by windmills isn't hazardous to humans, and the levels of infrasound and amount of shadow flicker created by the turbines are in compliance with local regulations and zoning rules.

John Dailey, senior business manager for the Florida-based energy company, said the company has received 83 complaints about the project since March 2015, a month after commissioners OK'd a change to the original construction plan that included a 29-mile above-ground power line.

About 70 of the complaints were made during the seven months the farm was being built and mostly involved construction-related concerns about noise and dust. Of the roughly 15 others that have been made since the $400 million project was completed, more than half have been resolved, Dailey said.

"I think that's a pretty good track record," he told commissioners.

Assessor Steve Schleiker also presented data from June through January showing property values in the area have not fallen due to the wind farm. Properties sold within a one-mile radius of the turbines and transmission line went for prices well above market values. He also cited numbers from the Pikes Peak Multiple Listing Service that showed that average sale prices of single family homes in the Calhan and Ramah area increased by about 45.5 percent between February 2016 and February 2017.

"Bottom line, it's all good news," he told commissioners.

A consultant with environmental engineering and consulting firm Epsilon Associates, hired by NextEra to conduct studies on sound levels and shadow flicker that were required by its agreement with the county, presented the firm's findings.

One report, which measured noise levels at 15 different locations near the wind farm, concluded that the turbines do not exceed the noise limit set by county ordinance. The second report, which used a computerized model to measure the duration of shadow flicker experienced by homes near the farm, stated that most of the homes experience less than the 30-hour-per-year maximum imposed by county regulations. The two exceptions were homes that are not included in the requirement because their owners have voluntary agreements with the company.

While research has linked high levels of infrasound to symptoms such as headache and nausea, the levels created by the turbines are too low to pose health risks, said Chris Ollson, an environmental health scientist who spoke at the meeting.

But residents who testified during the public comment part of the meeting dismissed the data, saying the infrasound and shadow flicker are still taking a toll.

"It's changed our life dramatically," said Joe Cobb, who lives close to the wind farm. "And I don't care how many experts come up here and tell me it's perfectly normal. It's not perfectly normal."

Several of the complaints the company has yet to resolve were made by people who spoke at the meeting, said Steve Stengel, director of communications for NextEra. "We will continue to seek a satisfactory resolution with these individuals," Stengel said in an email following the meeting.

Commissioner Darryl Glenn said his colleagues and county staff would review residents' concerns and some of the research that was provided by objectors.

Glenn also encouraged residents to use the formal complaint process, outlined in NextEra's contract with the county, to express their concerns about the effects of the windmills.

Under the terms of the contract, commissioners have the option to "require additional and reasonable mitigation or remedial actions" if NextEra does not adequately address complaints.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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