An Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal has dismissed a public appeal against a southwestern Ontario wind farm project feared to endanger human health and species at risk.
Several Ontario wind farm appeals are on the books or already underway, so the November 12, 2013 ruling may set a critical precedent, at least in terms of momentum, in the ongoing conflict between the Ontario government’s desire to embrace renewable energy and the public’s apparent skepticism over wind energy in particular. These concerns stem primarily from wind technology’s sound levels, aesthetics, shadows, height, and the threat posed to wildlife by the turbines’ large spinning blades.
There are upwards of 7,000 wind turbines already running in Ontario, and earlier in 2013, the Ontario government announced intentions to build many more.
With municipalities having zero veto power regarding wind farm locations, it seems the conflicts between municipalities and developers have only just begun.
“Rural Ontario is rising up [ …] peacefully […] in an effort to tell the Ontario Liberals they’re not going to take it any more,” said MPP Lisa MacLeod, a PC Energy Critic, who addressed wind farm protestors near Middlesex County on October 19, 2013. A protest convoy of some 150 vehicles lined Highway 402 that day.
MacLeod said the Conservatives want a moratorium on new wind farm development, and an end to subsidies for wind power companies, some of which are currently suing both municipalities and the Ontario government.
The recent Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal decision relates to a proposal by NextEra Energy to install 45 wind turbine generators in Middlesex County. Known as the Bornish Wind Energy Centre, the project is expected to generate up to 73.5 megawatts, enough to power upwards of 20,000 homes, according to the company.
Ontario issued a Renewable Energy Approval for the Bornish project in April 2013.
Since the Bornish project’s inception in 2007, there has been backlash from Middlesex. It was the county itself that eventually launched an appeal over the wind farm. That appeal was matched, though separately launched, by Middlesex-Lambton Wind Action Group member Robert Lewis.
The Bornish project became particularly heated. It all started when it was learned that bald eagles in the area could be threatened by the wind turbine development. Two eagles, to be precise, nest near the proposed development area, residents argued.
Eagles have proven to be a touchy subject for NextEra Energy, which ran into similar problems for its Adelaide project, also in Middlesex County (not to be confused with Suncor Energy’s nearby wind farm of the same name). One morning, Middlesex-Lambton Wind Action Group member Esther Wrightman heard NextEra chopping down a tree with an eagle’s nest to make way for the company’s construction. She went outside, filmed it, and put it on YouTube.
Now, Wrightman is facing legal action from NextEra after she parodied the company’s logo on her website: Next Terror, she wrote.
“So, is this issue personal? Yes, but I live here, was born and raised across the road, work here, my kids go to school here, and I am a person who will go to any length to protect what little natural environment we have left,” Wrightman told EcoLog News, noting that Ontarians often fail to understand the massive scale of ongoing wind energy projects.
Wrightman launched an appeal against NextEra’s Adelaide project in summer 2013.
The recent ruling from the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal appeared to show some concern for the development’s impact on the bald eagles. The ruling states that the Tribunal took an “ecosystem approach” based on “scale”. The ecosystem approach is tied to population level impacts. In this case, a large scale was used (Ontario and nearby U.S. states) to assess harm to the bald eagles population.
In its ruling, the Tribunal states that it “[…] will sometimes be called upon to determine which scale is most appropriate to use, whether it be for an individual species or group of species, or whether it be for an ecosystem or habitat, in considering a range of factors that relate to a case by case assessment of serious and irreversible harm.”
Although unclear in its ruling, the Tribunal appears to suggest that it would be advisable to locate the wind turbines at least 800 metres away from the Bornish eagles nest. While NextEra has no apparent obligation to do so, the Tribunal encouraged the company to conduct further research and determine what an appropriate distance from the nest would be.
Though disappointed with the Tribunal’s rejection of the Middlesex appeal, Wrightman is pleased to have heard some of the logic used by the Tribunal in its ruling, despite its lack of impact on the ultimate decision.
“The Tribunal has concerns about an approach where an existing significant and relatively rare natural feature such as an eagle nest is considered to be the ‘moveable’ feature and a turbine that is not yet built is the ‘immoveable’ one,” the ruling states.
NextEra Energy also received a permit from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to remove bald eagles that interfered with a separate wind project in Haldimand County (see the permit, right).
“I feel the scientists are very much being gagged about these issues,” Wrightman says, noting that job security is a real concern.
In just a few days, on November 19, 2013, yet another wind farm appeal begins. This time the appeal will be in Sault Ste. Marie against the Goulais Wind Farm project. As is the case with most Ontario wind appeals, opposition is grounded in health and environmental concerns.